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Climate Change and Health

What’s the Problem?

Climate change refers to major decadal changes in the earth’s temperature, rainfall, snow, and wind patterns. Human activities are mainly responsible for the drastic warming we’ve seen in recent decades. We release greenhouse gases (GHGs) as a result of burning fossil fuels (like coal and oil), using energy to drive, using electricity to light and heat our homes, and through other activities that support our quality of life. GHGs trap heat in the atmosphere, causing the earth’s temperature to increase.

The earth’s warming climate impacts human health in both direct and indirect ways. It’s caused over 140,000 excess deaths per year. Climate change affects the basic requirements for health: clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food, and secure shelter.

Climate change potentially influences a number of different health effects, including:

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  • Asthma, respiratory allergies, and airway diseases
  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular disease and stroke
  • Foodborne diseases and nutrition
  • Heat-related morbidity and mortality
  • Human development
  • Mental health and stress-related disorders
  • Neurological diseases and disorders
  • Vectorborne and zoonotic diseases
  • Waterborne diseases
  • Weather-related morbidity and mortality

Who’s at Risk?

Everyone’s affected by climate change, but some communities are more vulnerable to the health effects:

  • Poor communities
  • Children
  • Elderly
  • People with pre-existing medical conditions
  • Areas with weak health infrastructure

Can It Be Prevented?

The extent and speed of global climate change is driven by human activities. If we continue emitting GHGs at or above the current rate, the average global temperature is expected to increase by 3° to 7° F by 2100. Although this increase might seem minor, it’s a larger and faster increase than anything we’ve seen over the past 10,000 years. As the earth’s temperature continues to warm, the effects of global climate change are expected to be more severe:

  • Heat waves will be more common, severe, and longer lasting
  • Storms will be stronger
  • Flooding and damage in coastal areas will increase

To lessen the health effects of climate change, we need to lessen the amount of GHGs being emitted. We also need to take action to adapt to our already changing climate and the specific health risks that come with it. We also need interventions that geographically and temporally target very susceptible populations.

The Bottom Line

Climate change affects the basic requirements for health. By reducing GHG emissions, we’ll not only lessen the extent of future climate change, but it’ll also result in improved health in the present.

Here are some ways to save energy and reduce GHG emissions:

Change your lights

  • Replace regular light bulbs with energy-efficient bulbs

Heat and cool smartly

  • Clean air filters regularly
  • Get your heating and cooling equipment tuned annually by a licensed contractor
  • Replace old heating and cooling equipment with high efficiency models and make sure they’re properly sized and installed

Use green power

  • Use green power, which is environmentally friendly electricity that’s made from renewable energy sources like wind and sun
  • Buy your power from a company that uses green power
  • Create a greener home by installing solar panels and researching incentives for renewable energy in your state

Reduce, reuse, and recycle

  • Recycle newspapers, beverage containers, paper and other goods
  • Use products in containers that can be recycled
  • Use items that can be repaired or reused
  • Buy products made from recycled materials

Use water efficiently

  • Water your lawn or landscape only when needed and do it during the coolest part of the day, early morning is best
  • Turn the water off while shaving or brushing teeth
  • Fix leaky toilets and faucets

Drive smart

  • Choose the cleanest, most fuel-efficient vehicle that meets your needs
  • Go easy on the brakes and gas pedal, avoid hard accelerations, reduce time spent idling
  • Use overdrive and cruise control on your car
  • Unload unnecessary items in your trunk to reduce weight

Give your car a break

  • Use public transportation, carpool or walk or bike whenever possible to avoid using your car.
  • Combine your activities and errands into one trip
  • Consider working from home

Case Example

Daniel is a 17-year-old high school football player who is 6’1 and 230 pounds. He’s practicing with his team in 99°F heat during a mid-July heat wave. Daniel’s pushing himself to do well because he knows recruiters will be at his next game, so he’s been sweating profusely for the last few minutes. A teammate notices that Daniel’s become confused during the plays, has hot skin, and seems incoherent. Daniel collapses on the field. His coach tries to resuscitate him while the ambulance is on its way. He’s transported to the hospital, where Daniel has a temperature of 109.1°F. The following day, Daniel dies of a heat stroke, a common Heat Related Injury (HRI). As a result of climate change, heat waves which can cause HRI will become more intense and last longer.

Related Links

  • Page last reviewed: September 15, 2017
  • Page last updated: September 15, 2017
  • Content source: