Americans may be the least aware of any population worldwide of the health effects of global warming, according to a study in Current Environmental Health Reports. But recent events, notably, the California wildfires, have jolted healthcare professionals and other people in America across the political and economic spectra into awareness of the immediate and personal potential health hazards of our warming planet. Maybe most notably, after inhaling the west coast’s smoke-filled air this past fall, many young people are developing serious lung damage.
It’s not just fires that have lasting health effects. Infectious diseases rise with a warming climate, with epidemics of Lyme disease, encephalitis, West Nile disease, and a number of others becoming more likely with even small temperature increases in temperate zones. And people who have allergies can expect them to get worse, as plants and trees react to the warmth by releasing allergens for longer periods of times and in more places.
A number of sub-populations are at particular risk. The study notes that, “While anyone’s health can be harmed by climate change, some people are at greatly increased risk, including young children, pregnant women, older adults, people with chronic illnesses and disabilities, outdoor workers, and people with fewer resources.” Perhaps this is surprising, given that climate change is rarely talked about from a personal-health angle.
Global warming tends to be seen as such a large, sweeping phenomenon, one that ravages whole swaths of a continent, so word of the personal effects on individuals may be newly rattling. Dr. Howard Frumkin, former director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, told the New York Times that, “Lots of people who don’t consider climate change a major problem relative to themselves do take it seriously when they realize it’s a health concern. Heat waves, for example, not only kill people, they also diminish work capacity, sleep quality and academic performance in children.” Maybe this news will move more people to engage in more conscientious practices. To that end, a November 2020 report in Scientific American called for the creation of a National Institute of Climate Change.
There are many critical ways individuals can fight these negative health effects as well as climate change itself. For instance, developing a plant-focused diet and cutting back on red meat reduces greenhouse gases, helping create a healthier planet and healthier humans. Similarly, walking or biking instead of driving can help fight decline on both fronts. There are other subtle changes you can make, too. For years, healthcare leaders have been preaching the importance of such secondary interventions both for staying healthy and for fighting some chronic conditions. At this point, our planet itself is sending the same message. The more we can get people to take care of themselves the better we’ll be taking care of our shared home.