The wildfire season is off to a roaring start. The hot summer is worsening drought and drying out vegetation—an unfortunately ideal environment for wildfires to rage. But that’s just one consequence of global warming; it’s also leading to flooding, torrential rainstorms and heat-related deaths. In fact, the climate crisis has led to a widespread public health crisis. And as an ear, nose and throat physician, I see the effects more and more often.
I vividly remember a patient who came in late for her appointment during a July heat wave. When I walked in, she said, “I’m so sorry I’m late, I was up all night walking my grandbaby around the train station.” Without air conditioning at home, the child was sweating through her clothes in the heat of the night, putting her at risk for dehydration.
July 2019 was the hottest July on record; September 2019 was the hottest on record; January 2020 was the hottest on record; May 2020 was the hottest on record. This is not a coincidence. It is a pattern. Carbon dioxide, an important greenhouse gas contributing to global warming, has increased by 9 percent since 2005 and by 31 percent since 1950.
A U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report pointed out that the world has already warmed about one degree Celsius from pre-industrial levels. It stressed the urgency to act to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, and that a two-degree increase will lead to unprecedented extreme heat, water scarcity and food shortages around the globe.
Heat affects every part of our body. It can lead to heat exhaustion, heat stroke, anxiety, impaired cognitive function and even premature death from heart and lung disease. Across the country, the health concerns of the climate crisis are increasingly being recognized, pushing thousands of medical providers—doctors, nurses, pharmacists, therapists, medical students—to become advocates for change.
In my own practice, I explain to patients how the climate crisis affects their health. For example, apart from contributing to global warming, rising carbon dioxide levels increase the amount of pollen that plants produce as a consequence of higher rates of photosynthesis. This rise in pollen levels can lead to worsening allergy symptoms. Another example is fine particulate matter (known as PM2.5) associated with air pollution, much of it linked to the burning of fossil fuels that help drive the warming.
When we breathe in these particles, they travel down the airway and settle in the tiny air sacs called alveoli of the lungs, causing inflammation and potentially worsening asthma symptoms. The explanations are simple, but the health risks are widespread and complex. Ground-level ozone pollution, which is worse in hotter weather, can also harm people with asthma and other respiratory diseases.
And that harm falls disproportionately on the poor. Wealthier people living in North America have a per capita carbon footprint that is 25 percent higher than those of lower-income residents, with some affluent suburbs producing emissions 15 times higher than nearby neighborhoods. These carbon emissions contribute to global warming, and the subsequent health consequences are felt far beyond the neighborhood that produces them. Older adults, children, low-income communities and communities of color are less resilient on average to the health impacts of climate change.
The climate crisis is thus leading to a disproportionate public health crisis—and worse, it is a threat multiplier. At a time when many Americans are economically challenged, continued heat waves and the higher energy bills they trigger threaten access to water and energy security. The economic benefits of a low-carbon economy are clear. Estimates suggest that without climate investments, the United States will face economic damage from climate change equivalent to 1–3 percent of GDP per year by 2100.
The majority of Americans think global warming is happening. The climate crisis has unfairly been labeled as political, when in fact, people recognize that something needs to be done about it. Even for those who are seemingly unaffected, there is increasing global recognition that the safeguards of living in a protected community and affording expert medical care will eventually fail if global warming continues unchecked. Unfortunately, there will be no vaccine in six months or a year for the climate crisis. The only treatment is collective climate action in the present.
Climate action is required of our elected leaders, and we must mandate it of ourselves. It can be as simple as educating family and friends, while making sustainable shopping and traveling choices. It includes eating less meat, unplugging electronics and raising a voice against the fossil fuel industry. With a rise in demand for absentee ballots for the election this November, it is crucial to request mail-in ballots right away to make sure our voices are heard. The United States is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and we must vote for green policy. Legislative action and policy change work, as evidenced by the Clean Air Act and its subsequent amendments, which are projected to save 230,000 lives in 2020.
The climate crisis is a public health issue, and we must start healing the planet in order to heal each other. Fighting against the climate crisis is one of the most patriotic things we can do right now; it will protect our health and the health of our neighbors across the country and the globe, and will allow all of us to live on this planet, the only home we have.