When we think of climate change, we think of the environment and carbon emissions: wet polar bears, rising sea levels and gas-guzzling SUVs. When we think of public health, we think of diseases and cures: AIDS in Africa, hospital infections and quinine pills. The connections are not obvious, but as researchers learn more and more, links between climate change and public health are becoming very clear — and very, very scary.
Climate change, in fact, has the potential to become the most dangerous threat to public health that our generation will know. In an important step toward getting the public-health community to acknowledge its unique position in fighting climate change, the American Public Health Association has designated this week National Public Health Week. The theme? “Climate change: Our Health in the Balance.”
While a medical solution to public-health issues may be one proverbial tool in the kit, it is easy to forget that the root causes of many public-health issues do not involve medicine at all. Public-health experts know prevention is the best way of stopping any epidemic. It is the root source, not the symptoms, that must be treated. To the small child obsessed by playing with sharp objects, the optimal solution is certainly not an endless supply of Band-Aids.
Climate change will be the root source of many public-health nightmares. We are already beginning to see startling trends. The World Health Organization has documented more than 39 new and re-emerging diseases since the 1960s that are linked to global warming. Temperature increases over the past century have led to an estimated loss of 5.5 million disability-adjusted life years and at least 150,000 heat-related deaths. Mosquito populations are expanding across the globe and bringing nasty diseases like West Nile virus, malaria and yellow fever with them. Hotter temperatures also enhance smog formation, exacerbating conditions such as asthma and lung cancer.
If we do not change our behavior, the future will get much worse. Contrary to what some may believe, global warming will not bring more usable water but rather an increased variability in weather and more extreme weather events. Between 1980 and 1996 in the United States, to cite recent statistics, 750,000 cases of disease have been associated with unsafe drinking water. Potable water is also at risk of becoming contaminated, due to extreme events like Hurricane Katrina coupled with a rising sea level. The result? A worldwide shortage of water that will leave millions of people dehydrated and in severe need of water.
Furthermore, rising temperatures may soon scorch warmer latitudes, rendering them incapable of supporting any farmland. This means that drought-prone areas — regions reliant on subsistence farming, such as sub-Saharan Africa — will certainly collapse. Millions of people will be faced with starvation, malnutrition and extreme dehydration. (And I haven’t even mentioned the resulting political conflicts as countries scramble for food and water.)
Some argue that the human race can adapt. It is true that we have cures for vector-borne diseases. It is true that the decline of farmland in warmer latitudes will coincide with an increase in farmland in those latitudes that are colder. Millions of cold-climate-related illnesses will steadily decline. Some even argue that a little bit of global warming might benefit the human race as frozen seaways open up and arable farmland spreads to colder areas.
But this is only possible if the global transition is seamless. Critics imagine that Canadians will abandon any current job they have to work on a theoretically expanded wheat market. Our friendly neighbors to the north will generously distribute the food to victims in central Asia and Africa. A magic light will suddenly go off in everyone’s head and resources will allocated efficiently. Unfortunately, adaptation takes time and global warming necessitates a restructuring of the global economy. In the mean time, disease and malnutrition will have already spread across the globe. Neglecting this fact will endanger the health of billions across the world.
Instead, it is time to move beyond our inclination and to view climate change as something that will not simply take passing effect on the environment. It is time to move past images of melting ice caps and polar bears to ones of overcrowded hospitals and refugee camps. We must acknowledge that public health and the environment are inseparable.
The only question that remains: What should we do? Reducing, reusing, recycling, switching to fluorescent lightbulbs and driving hybrids are good starts. But to stop climate change, we must also change our lifestyle. We must be conscious of the danger it poses at all times and strive to reduce unnecessary consumption in every facet of our lives. Energy can be saved simply by going to sleep earlier. City living remains a much greener alternative to suburban sprawl.
Most importantly, we must convince our communities that climate change is not just about the “environment,” as if the environment was some separate entity. Climate change threatens our health and the health of our children. But the threat is not just in the future — it is happening at this very moment.
Charles Zhu is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College.