The climate crisis represents the greatest threat to our health and well-being that humanity has ever faced. The reverse side of this coin is that bold, urgent climate action is the biggest health and economic opportunity of our lifetimes.
Editor's note: This article was produced in partnership with Wisconsin Health Professionals for Climate Action. They are committed to communicating that the global climate crisis is a public health emergency, and advocating for equitable solutions to decrease the impact of climate change on human health. This article is the second part of a three-part series discussing human health, climate change and social justice. Read Part 1.
In our industrialized world, the same processes responsible for much of what we call “progress” are also creating enormous challenges for our ability to stay healthy – forest fires polluting the air, extreme flooding contaminating water supplies, droughts affecting our ability to grow food, and pandemics from accelerating biodiversity loss, to name a few. Our capacity to power a civilization of billions has led to vast improvements in our quality of life but has also led to a staggering amount of pollution that threatens those advances by degrading a major determinant of health - our natural environment.
The burning of fossil fuels - the major driver of the climate crisis - causes air pollution that harms human health from cradle to grave. Among its impacts are stillbirths, premature births, delayed cognitive development, asthma, heart attacks, strokes, and dementia. Incredibly, one out of five people in the world die from air pollution. This is ghastly but avoidable.
As the shocking statistic above shows there is a reason that over a hundred organizations, including some of the oldest and most venerated health groups in existence - The American Medical Association, The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association, among others - have signed onto the US Call to Action on Climate, Health, and Equity. This is a critical policy action agenda that consists of ten concrete steps policymakers can take to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Chief among them are rapidly transitioning to renewable energy, building resilient food and water systems, and assisting vulnerable communities to adapt to a low-carbon economy. These are all very attainable goals that help protect the vulnerable and save lives, but time is running out.
The principle purpose of the Call to Action, however, is to make policymakers recognize that the climate crisis is a true public health emergency, one which disproportionately affects the poor and communities of color. The nine broad areas of health impact are related to: severe weather, air pollution, changes in vector ecology, increased allergens, worse water quality, water and food security, environmental degradation, extreme heat, and mental health. These impacts are variable based on geography: drought and wildfires in the west, flooding and infectious disease in the Midwest. Climate dysphoria everywhere.
While Wisconsin Health Professionals for Climate Action, like most state-level organizations, focuses on mitigating and adapting to the impacts in our home state, the policies listed below are not unique to Wisconsin. Our state is a microcosm for the rising health risks due to the climate crisis.
Extreme heat kills more Wisconsinites than tornadoes, floods and blizzards combined. Climate change is expected to triple the number of high heat index days (days with a potentially fatal combination of heat and humidity) by 2050. This health impact, like the others, will be borne primarily by the poor and communities of color. Because of racist housing policies, these communities are more prone to the urban heat island effect, which can increase temperatures in cities up to 22 degrees more than rural areas. This was true during the recent heat dome in the Pacific Northwest: temperatures in affluent, tree-filled neighborhoods measured 98oF while black neighborhoods surrounded by concrete measured over 120oF or more.
Climate breakdown will also exacerbate flooding woes. Warm air holds more moisture, which leads to more precipitation and more extreme rain events. In southern and western Wisconsin, annual precipitation is now 7 inches more than the 1950 – 2006 average. Besides the devastating loss of life and property resulting from floods, these events have other direct health harms. Two-thirds of Wisconsinites get their drinking water from groundwater and these systems, with their limited treatment capacity, are highly susceptible to contamination from polluted floodwater. Extreme flooding can also cause drowning, electrocution, as well as tetanus and wound infections from the resulting hazardous waste. Users of municipal water supplies are also at increased risk as some of these systems also use inadequate disinfection methods that facilitate harmful bacterial growth. Decisive action needs to be taken.
One of the most obvious solutions to this problem - clean energy – is well known and attainable. It even makes sense on a purely economic basis. In addition to avoiding the above harms, if Wisconsin switched to 100% clean energy, we would save: 1,910 premature deaths, 650 respiratory ER visits, 873,000 minor restricted activity days, 148,000 work loss days, 49,400 respiratory symptom cases, 34,000 cases of asthma exacerbation, 1,580 cases of acute bronchitis, 670 hospital admissions, and 650 heart attacks (20). The total economic savings would be $20 billion in our state alone. In addition, redesigning cities around humans and not cars would provide exponentiating health benefits from cleaner air and improved cardiovascular health through more human motion. The health costs of air pollution and climate change already exceed $800 billion per year in the U.S. and are expected to rise without action. We either pay for it now or pay for it dearly later.
For a recent, poignant example of the dual nature of human progress, look no further than the pandemic. A year ago, the prospect of a vaccine seemed years away, and now there are fourteen. The same interconnectedness that allowed the coronavirus to rage around the globe also led to the unprecedented worldwide rollout of medicines to fight it. The same is true for climate change: the cause of and solution to this problem are humanity’s scientific know-how, our curiosity, our industriousness, and our desire to live better, healthier lives.
Whether we decide to dispassionately look at the facts and do what has to be done, or pursue business as usual is still an open question and one we need to answer fast, because the duality of human existence is extinction.
Dr. Chirantan Mukhopadhyay is an ophthalmologist and current retina fellow at the University of Iowa. He is passionate about patient care, education, and public health. He became passionate about climate change advocacy when the US withdrew from the Paris Accord after the birth of his second child. He believes doing is the best cure for despair. In 2019, he co-founded and became the first president of Wisconsin Health Professionals for Climate Action.