The Health Impacts of Climate Change
The current and potential health impacts of climate change are broad and far reaching, including greater food insecurity, increased air pollution, and an increase in the global burden of disease. Bold and courageous action is needed to address the health threats posed by climate change, and necessarily, by our dependence on the greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels that are causing the Earth’s temperature to rise.
According to the Fifth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, climate change will have both direct and indirect effects on human health through increases in extreme weather events (such as heat waves, drought, and heavy rain), disease vectors and water-borne diseases, air pollution, disruptions to economic and social systems such as food production and distribution, and mental health issues related to the displacement of communities in the wake of weather-related disasters.
The health impacts of climate change are – and will continue to be – felt first and worst by communities of color and low-income communities. The disenfranchised communities that have the least access to the world’s resources and have contributed the least to the causes of climate change will face the greatest impact, exacerbating existing health, social, and economic inequalities. For example, Environmental Justice communities are often hit first and worst by floods and other environmental harms, and are structurally less resilient to withstand the impacts. We have already seen the ways in which EJ communities are disproportionately affected by weather-related disasters in the recovery responses to events such as Hurricane Katrina, which left the lower-income and African American communities of New Orleans without shelter, food, and water.
In California, the populations most at risk are children, older adults, coastal communities, the urban poor, and social isolated communities. In regions such as California, we are already seeing increased risk for fire during the prolonged fire seasons, especially when combined with the effects of the drought.
Climate Change and Air Pollution:
Climate change and air pollution are inextricably linked. This is especially felt in California, where the air is markedly poor and where the levels of ozone and particulate matter exceed the levels allowed by the Federal Clean Air Act. The burning and refining of fossil fuels are the greatest human-made contributors to climate change, and are at the same time emitting greenhouse gases and air toxins that make breathing in Los Angeles harmful to our health.
Greenhouse gases are gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. The burning of these gases is the most significant human-made contributor to climate change. These gases are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases.
Short-lived climate pollutants – black carbon, fluorinated gases, and methane – are climate forcers that stay in the atmosphere for much shorter periods of time than longer-lived climate pollutants such as carbon dioxide. Their climate-warming consequences, however, can be much more significant than that of carbon in the short term. Reductions in SLCPs result in immediate benefits in climate, air quality, and health.