On Monday, February 28, 2022, the IPCC released the second part of its sixth report on the impacts of climate change and ways to adapt to them. Like its predecessors, this report is alarming “and underscores the urgent need for immediate and more ambitious action to address climate risks.” Half measures are no longer an option,” said Hoesung Lee, economist, and chairman of the IPCC.
Climate change affects all life on earth, both animal and plant life. Also human beings. Our Western way of life is threatened by more extreme and frequent weather conditions, the depletion of natural resources, to name just two examples. Our health is also directly and indirectly threatened by global warming. A group of 30 researchers from around the world, associated with prestigious universities such as Harvard, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and the University of Vienna in Austria, have drawn up a picture of the risks of climate change to human health and made proposals to adapt to them, in the spirit of the latest IPCC report.
Heatwaves, pollution, fires, storms, risks to our health
Our health is directly threatened by the most obvious manifestations of climate change. Heatwaves are an ordeal for the body. To avoid overheating, when the temperature exceeds 40°C for several days, blood vessels dilate, breathing and heart rate increase, and sweating increases to cool the body, leading to dehydration. A young, healthy body can tolerate this, but it can be fatal for the weak. The elderly, families living below the poverty line, ethnic minorities, and outdoor workers are the most exposed to the effects of heatwaves. High temperatures also change our behavior and are associated with increased rates of suicide, self-mutilation, and aggressive behavior.
Climate change is a vicious circle fueled by greenhouse gas emissions. This pollution is also toxic to our health. According to the WHO, the most harmful air pollutants are fine particulates, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. Their inhalation causes chronic respiratory diseases, asthma, and weakens the airways against viruses. Fine PM particles smaller than 2.5 are the most dangerous because once inhaled, they can enter the respiratory alveoli and enter the bloodstream.
Fires, which are also becoming more frequent and larger, saturate the air with a variety of other pollutants as a result of burning our manufactured products, especially plastics. Short- and long-term exposure to fumes increases the risk of chronic respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, mental disorders, and poisoning from contaminated water or food. Again, the list is not exhaustive.
Floodings are also a health risk when contaminated water makes drinking water contaminated and unsafe to drink. Storms during peak pollen production expose allergy sufferers to asthma attacks and allergic rhinitis.
The effects mentioned above are direct and fairly easy to detect, but the group of researchers also points out the existence of indirect effects that are more difficult to predict. These include the emergence of new infectious and vector-borne diseases. With global warming, vectors such as mosquitoes and ticks can live far from their geographical area of origin and their spread has exploded. Since 2004, the prevalence of tiger mosquitoes has increased in other areas, which could bring Zika, dengue, or chikungunya disease from far away tropical areas. Imported cases and, less frequently, domestic cases are recorded each year, notably two dengue cases in 2021.
And then there are the long-term consequences, such as the displacement of many people, reduced food security, and continued stress. This is a description of the world that could be ours if inaction on climate change continues.
Scientists are proposing solutions to mitigate these problems that policymakers need to put into practice immediately. Adapting our health care systems to the growing incidence of respiratory diseases, pandemics, and other mental disorders. Educating the younger generation about climate change, its causes, and consequences, or taking personal initiatives according to one’s means. Actions that will certainly have a positive impact if humanity decides to act.