In order to stay healthy, we need to make sure our surroundings are healthy. That includes our home, our friends, our family, and—most importantly—our planet. There’s only one planet Earth, and as humans living on it, it’s our job to make sure we keep it healthy so that it, in turn, will keep us healthy as well. With people denying the existence of climate change, however, taking care of Earth becomes more difficult than it needs to be. Not everyone realizes just how the climate crisis affects us immediately, so learning just how climate change impacts us is a good first step toward healing our world.
Here are a few ways climate change is affecting our health.
Extreme heat is more deadly than any other weather-related hazard in the world, being responsible for more deaths than tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes in the United States alone. Heat can overwhelm the human body and make it difficult to maintain healthy body temperature while shutting off our only means of cooling ourselves down: sweating. If it’s too hot and too humid, sweat isn’t able to evaporate and won’t be able to cool us down as a result; likewise, prolonged exposure to heat will shut down our ability to sweat first. Additionally, being exposed to extreme heat for too long can lead to heat cramps, heat exhaustion (which requires emergency medical treatment), and—most seriously—heat stroke (which can lead to death without immediate medical attention).
Hurricanes are widely known to be the cause of mass destruction when they roll up to the coast, and climate change is only making this weather more extreme—and more dangerous. Floodwaters from hurricanes can remain long after the rain stops, and the swamped areas can lead to an increase in waterborne infections and diseases like cholera. Mold can take over an area and cause serious respiratory problems for people who remain in the area. Vector-borne illnesses can also arise and be spread by swamp-dwelling insects like mosquitoes, fleas, mites, and ticks. As the climate changes and more areas become hospital toward vector-borne illnesses, the scope of disease outbreaks is changing and beginning to pop up where they didn’t previously exist.
Warmer environments and an increase in rainstorms both create the perfect habitat for insects to thrive. At a broad glance, this might seem like nothing more than an annoyance that’ll leave us with a few itchy bumps after spending time outdoors, but in reality, an increase in insects like mosquitoes, ticks, and flies means an increase of (potentially deadly) disease. Known as vectors to scientists, insects are known as the deadliest animal to humans and are spreading and bringing these diseases farther than they ever have before. Climate change causes warmer weather and still waters, which causes these vectors to live longer lives and migrate to places that were previously too cold for them to survive. Climate change is also helping waterborne pathogens like bacteria, viruses, and protozoa to grow because they, too, thrive in warmer climates. This is also a danger to our health.
Scientists have already found a rise in certain infectious diseases around the globe due to vectors and waterborne pathogens. This includes Lyme disease (transmitted by ticks), West Nile virus (transmitted by mosquitoes which have fed on infected birds), malaria (transmitted by mosquitoes), and flesh-eating bacteria (caused by vibriosis in warm seawater).
In addition to physical ailments, this extreme weather can also take a toll on people’s mental health, which can drastically affect a person’s well-being. Since mental illness is often unseen, these health issues are normally left in the background and ignored in favor of easier-to-understand health conditions, if not forgotten about entirely. This isn’t a good thing, as some people can experience serious mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. Displacement and being forced to relocate after a disaster like a hurricane can also inflict acculturation stress onto the survivors of the natural disaster: this means that migrants are more likely to develop psychiatric disorders, like schizophrenia, than the native population of where they’ve migrated to or those who voluntarily migrate to a different location.
People who go through a natural disaster-related to climate (hurricanes, floods, bush fires, etc.) are also “at a greater risk of developing acute stress reaction and adjustment disorder.” These are generally anxiety-spectrum disorders that, with proper treatment, can subside over time, though others can develop bipolar disorder or depression. Depression, in particular, is likely to be more pronounced in those who live in small towns as opposed to large cities, and as climate change continues to increase, mental illnesses will probably impact a greater number of people in relation to climate change-related disasters.
This is particularly concerning for farmers, whose livelihoods often suffer substantially because of droughts brought on by heatwaves. In both developed and developing countries, a link has been found between droughts and farmer suicides. Economic hardships fall onto farmers when crops fail because of the climate, and adding crop failure to increased expenses, debt traps, prolonged exposure to heat, and migration ultimately leads to an increased number of suicide attempts made by farmers alone. Farmers aren’t the only ones at risk of suicide; as shown with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, the devastating aftermath of the storm plus pure desperation led to the number of calls to the suicide hotline to double after years of dropping. By the end of 2017, the suicide rate in Puerto Rico increased 29% compared to the previous year.
As it can clearly be seen, climate change has a larger impact on the health of humans than some people believe. As residents on Earth, it’s our job to take care of the planet because when we do, the planet will take care of us in turn. Start looking at your own carbon footprint, join nonprofit organizations whose mission is to help the environment, contact your government officials to inform them of how climate change is a big deal—whatever you decide to do, taking care of Earth starts with all of us. You can help decide whether we continue to watch it die, or help do your part so we can ensure it’ll continue to survive.