Climate change is a public health emergency
By Ploy Achakulwisut, postdoctoral scientist, George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health
1. The frequency, intensity, and duration of heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, floods and storms are increasing due to climate change
The most well-known and visible manifestation of climate change to date is probably the increasing volatility of extreme weather events worldwide, causing deaths, injuries, debilitating and fatal diseases, and displacement. Researchers have estimated that climate-related disasters caused 2.52 million deaths globally between 1980 and 2013. Besides the growing research field of attribution studies, in which scientists can tease out the role climate change played in increasing the likelihood and/or severity of an extreme event, some have gone even further to make a direct connection to the human death toll. For example, researchers estimated that during the 2003 European heat wave, which claimed over 70,000 lives in 12 countries, climate change increased the likelihood of heat-related deaths by 70 percent in Paris and 20 percent in London.
2. As average temperatures continue to rise, so will heat-related disorders
In addition to heat waves, climate change is generally causing temperatures to rise, hot days to become more common, and summers to last longer. In cities, this problem is being compounded by the “urban heat island” effect, which can lead to temperatures being 1–5°C higher than surrounding rural areas. Exposure to extreme heat can lead to serious illness and even death, with the most vulnerable groups including children, the elderly, and those performing outdoor work or activities.
An unforeseen example of human “climate canaries” has emerged in Central America and southern Mexico, where more than 20,000 sugarcane workers have died from chronic kidney disease most likely caused by extreme temperature and employment conditions that prevent adequate hydration and rest. Similar patterns are appearing in workers halfway round the world in India, Sri Lanka and Thailand.