In a shack that now sits below sea level, a mother in Bangladesh struggles to grow vegetables in soil inundated by salt water. In Malawi, a toddler joins thousands of other children perishing from drought-induced malnutrition. And in China, more than one million people died from air pollution in 2012 alone.
Around the world, climate change is already having an effect on human health.
In a recent paper, Katherine Burke and Michele Barry from the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health, along with former Wellesley College President Diana Walsh, described climate change as “the ultimate global health crisis.” They offered recommendations to the new United States president to address the urgently arising health risks associated with climate change.
The authors, along with Stanford researchers Marshall Burke, Eran Bendavid and Amy Pickering who also study climate change, are concerned by how little has been done to mitigate its effects on health.
“I think it’s likely that health impacts could be the most important impact of climate change,” said Marshall Burke, an assistant professor of earth system science and a fellow at the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies.
There is still time to ease — though not eliminate — the worst effects on health, but as the average global temperature continues to creep upward, time appears to be running short.
“I think we are at a critical point right now in terms of mitigating the effects of climate change on health,” said Amy Pickering, a research engineer at the Woods Institute for the Environment. “And I don’t think that’s a priority of the new administration at all.”
Even in countries like the United States that are well-equipped to adapt to climate change, health impacts will be significant.
“We see mortality rates increase when temperatures are very low, and especially when they are very high.”
Bendavid also has seen air pollutants cause respiratory problems in people from Beijing to Los Angeles to villages in Sub-Saharan Africa.
“Hotter temperatures make it such that particulate matter and dust and pollutants stick around longer,” he said.
In addition to respiratory issues, air pollution can have long-term cognitive effects. A study in Chile found that children who are exposed to high amounts of air pollution in utero score lower on math tests by the fourth grade.
“I think we’re only starting to understand the true costs of dirty air,” said Marshall Burke. “Even short-term exposure to low levels can have life-long effects.”
Low-income countries like Bangladesh already suffer widespread, direct health effects from rising sea levels. Salt water flooding has crept through homes and crops, threatening food sources and drinking water for millions of people.
“I think that flooding is one of the most pressing issues in low-income and densely populated countries,” said Pickering. “There’s no infrastructure there to handle it.”
Standing water left over from flooding is also a breeding ground for diseases like cholera, diarrhea and mosquito-borne illnesses, all of which are likely to become more prevalent as the planet warms.
On the flip side, many regions of Sub-Saharan Africa — where clean water is already hard to access — are likely to experience severe droughts. The United Nations warned last year that more than 36 million people across southern and eastern Africa face hunger due to drought and record-high temperatures.
Residents may have to walk farther to find water, and local sources could become contaminated more easily. Pickering fears that losing access to nearby, clean water will make maintaining proper hygiene and growing nutritious foods a challenge.
All of these effects and more can also damage mental health, said Katherine Burke and her colleagues in their paper. The aftermath of extreme weather events and the hardships of living in long-term drought or flood can cause anxiety, depression, grief and trauma.
Climate change will affect health in every sector of society, but as Katherine Burke and her colleagues said, “….climate disruption is inflicting the greatest suffering on those least responsible for causing it, least equipped to adapt, least able to resist the powerful forces of the status quo.
“If we fail to act now,” they said, “the survival of our species may hang in the balance.”
If the Paris Agreement’s emissions standards are met, scientists predict that the world’s temperature will increase about 2.7 degrees Celsius – still significant but less hazardous than the 4-degree increase projected from current emissions.
The United States plays a critical role in the Paris Agreement. Apart from the significance of cutting its own emissions, failing to live up to its end of the bargain — as the Trump administration has suggested — could have a significant impact on the morale of the other countries involved.
“The reason that Paris is going to work is because we’re in this together,” said Marshall Burke. “If you don’t meet your target, you’re going to be publicly shamed.”
The Trump administration has also discussed repealing the Clean Power Plan, Obama-era legislation to decrease the use of coal, which has been shown to contribute to respiratory disease.
“Withdrawing from either of those will likely have negative short- and long-run health impacts, both in the U.S. and abroad,” said Marshall Burke.
Scott Pruitt, who was confirmed today as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is expected to carry out Trump’s promise to dismantle environment regulations.
Despite the Trump administration’s apparent doubts about climate change, a few prominent Republicans do support addressing its effects.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobile, supports a carbon tax, which would create a financial incentive to turn to renewable energy sources. He also has expressed support for the Paris Agreement. It is possible that as secretary of state, Tillerson could help maintain U.S. obligations from the Paris Agreement, though it is far from certain whether he would choose to do so or how Trump would react.
More promising is a recent proposal from the Climate Leadership Council. Authored by eight leading Republicans — including two former secretaries of state, two former secretaries of the treasury and Rob Walton, Walmart’s former chairman of the board — the plan seeks to reduce emissions considerably through a carbon dividends plan.
Their proposal would gradually increase taxes on carbon emissions but would return the proceeds directly to the American people. Americans would receive a regular check with their portion of the proceeds, similar to receiving a social security check. According to the authors, 70 percent of Americans would come out ahead financially, keeping the tax from being a burden on low- and middle-income Americans while still incentivizing lower emissions.
“A tax on carbon is exactly what we need to provide the right incentives and induce the sort of technological and infrastructure change needed to reduce long-term emissions,” said Marshall Burke.
Pickering added, “This policy is a ray of hope for meaningful action on climate.”
It remains to be seen whether the new administration and congress would consider such a program.
Meanwhile, academics can promote health by researching the effects of climate change and finding ways to adapt to them.
“I think it’s fascinating that there’s just so little data right now on how climate change is going to impact health,” said Pickering.
Studying the effects of warming on the world challenges traditional methods of research.
“You can’t create any sort of experiment,” said Bendavid. “There’s only one climate and one planet.”
The scholars agree that interdisciplinary study is a critical part of adapting to climate change and that more research is needed.
“If ever there was an issue worthy of a leader’s best effort, this is the moment, this is the issue,” said Katherine Burke and her colleagues. “Time is short, but it may not be too late to make all the difference.”