Last month, the United States Global Change Research Program, a group made up of the United States EPA and seven other federal agencies, released the largest scientific assessment to date on the impacts of climate change on human health in the United States. The report focused on multiple impacts of climate change, including changes in severe weather events, from dangerous heat waves to hurricanes, and alterations in the spread of toxic algal blooms or waterborne diseases.
The report predicts an increase in deaths and illness from temperature changes, effects which will fall most heavily on children, the elderly, and economically disadvantaged groups. Acute reactions from extreme heat and cold are of concern, but research also shows that temperature extremes can also worsen outcomes for a variety of chronic diseases. Climate change will also affect the levels of air pollutants, including ozone and fine particulate matter, while longer pollen seasons may result in adverse outcomes from allergies and asthma episodes. We have already seen an increase in extreme weather events, and these instances are likely to increase, resulting in compromised infrastructure and decreased access to food, water and medical care for vulnerable coastal populations.
Two chapters in the report focus on climate change impacts on the spread of disease. Climate change is likely to alter the transmission of diseases carried by mosquitoes, ticks and fleas, as seasonal temperature and precipitation patterns shift and alter the geographic range of these diseases. Water-related illnesses are also likely to increase, as temperature changes, changes in runoff patterns, and extreme weather events alter the spread of toxic agents.
Climate change is likely to affect food security on the local, regional and global levels, as carbon dioxide levels and rising temperatures alter the safety, nutrition and distribution of food, including reducing protein and essential minerals in some crop species. Increases in rates of foodborne illness and instances of chemical contamination in the food supply are also likely.
Lastly, the report focused on the impacts of climate change on mental health and well-being. They found that groups including children, the elderly, pregnant women, economically disadvantaged populations, the homeless, and first responders to weather-related disasters are most at risk for emotional and mental effects of climate change.
Climate change will affect us all, but the report summarizes several populations of concern that may be especially vulnerable to climate-related impacts. In addition to low-income populations, children, and the elderly, vulnerable populations include communities of color, immigrant groups, Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, and those with preexisting medical conditions. The authors wrote, “Characterizations of vulnerability should consider how populations of concern experience disproportionate, multiple and complex risks to their health and well-being in response to climate change.” With so many factors to consider, these characterizations of cumulative risk will not be easy to determine.
Though this report focused on impacts within the U.S., the consequences of climate change will fall on populations worldwide. Within our country and around the globe, we have a responsibility to prevent and adapt to as many climate-related changes as possible, because they will disproportionately impact the most vulnerable among us.
Read the Report:
USGCRP, 2016: The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment. Crimmins, A., J. Balbus, J.L. Gamble, C.B. Beard, J.E. Bell, D. Dodgen, R.J. Eisen, N. Fann, M.D. Hawkins, S.C. Herring, L. Jantarasami, D.M. Mills, S. Saha, M.C. Sarofim, J. Trtanj, and L. Ziska, Eds. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, 312 pp.