With climate change’s impacts on global health increasingly being recognized and experienced around the world, U.S. agencies are taking note. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) recently released 2022-2030 Climate Strategy, “climate change negatively affects life-long physical and mental health, mortality, food security, and access to essential services, such as health care; water, sanitation and hygiene; and education.” The strategy seeks to address the widespread implications of climate change on global health and tackle both urgent challenges and long-term system changes needed to benefit people around the world.
The implications of climate change for global health are impossible to deny, with climate change not only exacerbating existing health threats but also creating new public health challenges.
While the nexus between climate change and global health is complex, their overlap can be most clearly seen in: 1) clean water and nutritious food; 2) rising heat, the spread of disease, and air pollution; and 3) extreme weather and displacement.
Clean Water and Nutritious Food
Clean water and nutritious food are essential for human health, and climate change is increasingly putting these fundamental resources at risk. While people are only able to survive about three days without any water, rising global temperatures can lead to deadly pathogens in freshwater sources, impeding access to clean water. Contaminated water puts human health at risk and poses a particularly large threat to children’s lives. While access to nutritious food is also critical for health, malnutrition leads to stunting and wasting, threatening lives around the world. And despite overall agricultural productivity increasing, climate change has slowed agricultural growth over the past 50 years globally.
Rising Heat, the Spread of Disease, and Air Pollution
Over the past twenty years, the earth’s temperature has increased at unprecedented rates. While the planet’s temperature has risen by 0.14 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1880, the rate of warming over the past 40 years is twice that, rising 0.32 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1981. This increase in temperatures is accompanied by the spreading of mosquitoes carrying diseases like malaria and dengue into new areas. As rising temperatures both allow and force animals to leave their native habitats, this movement and the subsequent novel encounters between animals leads to an increased risk of transmission of pathogens from wild animals to humans. Additionally, a new report from the University of Chicago’s Energy Institute found that air pollution is “deeply intertwined” with climate change, with roughly 97% of the world’s population living in places where pollution exceeds the recommended level.
Extreme Weather and Displacement
As a result of climate change, extreme weather events like droughts, floods, and heat waves have become more frequent and intense around the world. A recent study warns that as these events become more frequent, it will become increasingly difficult to predict the effects of extreme weather on infection rates and disease outcomes due to varying background temperatures and unknown consequences of changing host-pathogen interactions. Moreover, extreme weather events often render places inhabitable, forcing people to flee their homes, with people in low-income countries often disproportionately impacted.
What’s It Worth?
In September 2021, over 200 medical journals warned in an unprecedented statement of the grave threat the rapidly warming climate is to global public health. Moreover, in their 2022 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the main authoritative source on climate change, highlighted the overwhelming connection between climate change and global health.
The evidence is clear: It is in the United States’ interest to lead globally on strategies that address climate change’s impact on global health. What’s at stake? America’s health and safety, as well as the health and safety of people around the world.