Health Effects of Climate Change

Climate Change refers to changes in Earth’s weather patterns and average temperatures, caused by too many heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. These gases come from human activities such as burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas), deforestation, and agriculture. The planet is warming mainly because these gases trap heat and prevent it from escaping into space. Climate change impacts people and all living things, including animals and plants, water, food, air quality, and natural habitats.

Observed changes include increased global air and ocean temperatures, rising sea levels, long-term and widespread reductions of Arctic snow and ice cover, and changing rainfall conditions around the world. These changes are a result of excess heat being trapped by the climate system, with most of the extra heat coming from human activities.

The amount of health risks from climate change depends on how much the planet warms, how fast it warms, and what is done to reduce the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If humans greatly reduce their emissions of heat-trapping gases, global temperature rise can be limited to about 2°C (3.6°F) above preindustrial levels. But without significant reductions in emissions, the temperature could increase by more than 5°C (8.1°F).

Rising temperatures cause air quality problems that can worsen heart disease and other health conditions. Drought and flooding occur as warmer temperatures cause drier soils. Flooding events can contaminate drinking water with harmful bacteria, viruses and chemicals. Warmer, drier conditions favor mosquitoes and other insects that can carry diseases from one person to another.

Many countries have made commitments to achieve “net zero” emissions, which means reducing and removing all remaining greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. However, the current level of climate action is insufficient to meet even this goal by 2050.

Some groups of people are more vulnerable than others to the health effects of climate change, including women and girls, older adults, children, the poor and disadvantaged, certain occupational and health groups, and communities of color. These populations are often excluded from the benefits of economic development and have limited opportunities to take protective measures against climate risks.

Climate change affects everyone, but some groups of people are at higher risk of harm and will have a harder time adapting. These include people with a chronic illness or disability, those who spend a lot of time outdoors, and communities that depend on local sources of food and water. People who have a mental illness, especially those taking medications that make it difficult to regulate their body temperature, are also at greater risk during extreme heat.

The best way to protect our health and the future of the planet is to act now. Everyone can do their part by using less energy and water, recycling, and planting trees. Those with more resources can help by investing in renewable energy and supporting policies that promote environmental sustainability. It is important to remember that the most effective actions address broader social determinants of health, such as housing and transportation, rather than narrowly focusing on environmental concerns.

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