Anyone wishing to objectively learn about what global climate change is — why the Earth is warming, where the excess heat is going, and why we should all worry about it — needs to look no further than the 2013-2014 Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report. This objective, evidence-based report begins with this conclusion:
Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.
The direct and indirect impacts of global warming and climate change on human health — both present and future — are not hard to grasp. Climate change is a global phenomenon; it affects everyone, but no one more than the poor, the sick, the elderly, and children — especially children. The most direct effects on health include:
Extreme Heat — Heat-related illnesses and deaths (dehydration, heat stroke, and cardiac arrest) are seen during heat waves, which have been increasing in frequency, duration, and intensity.
Air Quality — Fine particulate matter and ground-level ozone pollution is worse with hotter temperatures. The American Medical Association reports in this week’s edition of JAMA that 43 million Americans live in areas that exceed EPA standards for fine particulate matter; a third of the world’s population lives in areas that exceed WHO standards. The respiratory effects from air pollution are profound, especially in children with chronic lung conditions like asthma. (According to the CDC, nearly 10% of American children have asthma.) The risk of wildfires has also increased in recent years as a result of warming, leading to even more air pollution that can affect people who live far from the fire.
Allergies and Asthma — Air pollution isn’t the only factor that makes asthma worse. Higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere leads to higher production of plant-based pollens. Higher concentrations of allergens over longer allergy seasons increase allergic sensitivities and asthma exacerbations. An estimated 14.2 million children in the U.S. visit their physician’s office and another 1.8 million visit emergency departments every year with the primary diagnosis of asthma. Those numbers are expected to increase with climate change.
Infectious Diseases — The geographic distribution of vectorborne diseases like malaria and Chikungunya (mosquitos) and Lyme disease (ticks) is already spreading as warming occurs in more temperate zones. Waterborne diseases that cause severe, often fatal diarrhea in children are also expected to increase as flooding caused by heavy rainfall and rising coastal sea levels infiltrates and overflows private and municipal sewage systems, contaminating food and drinking water supplies.
The indirect effects on human health caused by a warming planet are also bad news:
Food and Water Availability — Food stability is already being threatened by encroaching areas of drought on previously arable farmland. Rising coastal sea levels will also encroach on food-producing areas. While the global demand for food is increasing, it is expected that 2% of global food production will be lost each year due to climate change. Undernutrition and malnutrition has always been a scourge undermining human health and, with climate change, both are expected to get worse.
Mental Health — Climate-related natural disasters can lead to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other often-overlooked psychological problems. There are many recent examples of the psychological effects of natural disasters like hurricanes, tornados, flooding, and wildfires on children and adults witnessing the loss of life, limb, and property, the pain of suffering, and the displacement from their homes.
Social Disruption and War — The IPCC report devotes a chapter to past (Darfur) and present (Syria) conflicts that were influenced (among other factors) by climate change. Future armed conflicts appear to be inevitable as large populations are displaced from their homelands by drought, floods, rising coastal sea levels, infectious diseases, pollution, and war.
The fact that our children will bear the worst consequences of global climate change should not be understated. They are inheriting a planet badly damaged by nothing more than “progress.” The damage inflicted was unintentional at first, neglectful in the end. Humans, blessed with the knowledge and ability use fossil fuels to build a great civilization, lost sight of the fact that Earth is a closed system. (What happens on Earth, stays on Earth.) When the time came to do something about it, humans, blessed with intellect and ability, ultimately did not have the will to change.
When it’s their turn to fix it, our children may find it’s too late to reverse the damage. Then they will look upon us, their parents and grandparents, unkindly.
Read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change AR5 here.
Read the National Climate Assessment here. (Highly recommended.)