Climate Change and Public Health: How the Two Are Related

Climate Change and Public Health: How the Two Are Related

Climate Change and Public Health: How the Two Are Related banner

On the surface, it may seem like climate change and public health have more differences than similarities, but the two concepts are uniquely intertwined. By understanding the relationship between climate change and public health, you can take a more nuanced approach to your public health career and begin exploring public health adaptation strategies for climate change.

Understanding Climate Change and Its Impact on Public Health

Climate change has a surprisingly significant impact on global public health, with some populations being more vulnerable to the impact of climate change than others. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), an individual’s age, location and socioeconomic status will affect their overall risk, highlighting the importance of improving health equity.

The Science Behind Climate Change

The United Nations defines climate change as the long-term shifts and trends shaping weather patterns and temperatures around the world. Climate change is largely attributed to human activity that increases the production of greenhouse gases, which includes burning fossil fuels, farming livestock and deforestation.

Direct and Indirect Effects of Climate Change on Health

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences states that climate change can both directly and indirectly impact public health. Climate change directly impacts public health in a variety of ways, including increasing the frequency of extreme weather, which can lead to injury or death in disaster-stricken areas.

Climate change indirectly impacts public health in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Increasing air pollution which puts a person at higher risk of cardiovascular disease, lung disease and upper respiratory illness.
  • Altering the temperature, which can change the migratory and behavior patterns of animals and insects, ultimately leading to novel viruses and increased disease.
  • Increasing water run-off, which can increase the risk of water-borne illness in vulnerable populations.

Major Public Health Concerns Linked to Climate Change

Climate change will continue to impact human health in two key ways, per the Environmental Protection Agency. Not only will climate change increase the frequency or severity of the diseases, illnesses and health complications that humans face, but it also will influence the development of new and unexpected health concerns.

These are some of the primary health concerns that have already been linked to climate change:

Heatwaves and Their Increasing Threat to Vulnerable Populations

Heatwaves are increasing in frequency, duration and severity, which is increasing the health risks of people who live in areas impacted by heat waves. In addition, the number of people at risk of health complications due to extreme heat is on the rise, as new locations are experiencing severe, lasting heat waves. For example, Europe has recently suffered through heatwaves in the summer months that were unheard of just a few decades ago.

The Rise of Vector-Borne Diseases With Warmer Climates

Vector-borne diseases are those that infect humans but are transmitted by vectors, such as mosquitoes, fleas and ticks. As temperatures continue to rise around the globe, the behavior patterns and seasons for these vectors are changing, which is increasing the risk of vector-borne diseases in populations worldwide.

Respiratory Problems from Pollution and Air Quality Deterioration

Greenhouse gas emissions have decreased the strength of the ozone layer, which is increasing the risk of air pollution and significantly deteriorating the air quality. In addition, wildfires are sending lingering smoke into the atmosphere, which is affecting the respiratory health of people in locations far from the original location of the fire itself.

Climate Change and Water-Borne Diseases

Climate change is commonly associated with rising water levels and rising ocean temperatures. This is having a direct impact on water-borne disease around the world.

The Connection Between Water Quality and Climate Variability

As temperatures fluctuate and seasonal patterns continue to change, it seems that the quality of the water people rely on to live each day will suffer. A combination of factors are leading to a decrease in overall water quality, such as:

  • Increased precipitation overall.
  • Varying runoff timing.
  • Rising temperatures both in the air and in the water.

Emerging Threats: Water-Borne Diseases in a Changing Climate

One of the public health threats related to climate change that researchers are keeping a close eye on is the increased risk of water-borne illness, particularly in coastal areas. Rising sea temperatures combined with runoff changes are causing more coastal areas to develop bacteria that leads to water-borne illnesses. As reported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, water-borne illness related to these bacteria can result in diarrhea and intestinal illness which can be contagious in a population.

Mental Health and Climate Change

In addition to the fact that climate change can have a direct impact on the physical health of vulnerable populations around the world, it also can have a detrimental impact on mental health worldwide.

Understanding the Psychological Impacts of Climate Events

People who experience extreme weather conditions and natural disasters related to climate change can suffer severe psychological trauma. Populations at the epicenter of natural disasters, such as wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes or tornadoes, are most at-risk. Those who are displaced, suffering from a loss of destruction, loss of livelihood, or reeling from the loss of family, friends or loved ones may suffer from anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Strategies for Addressing Climate-Induced Anxiety and Stress

Even those who are not directly impacted by climate-induced events may experience anxiety and stress related to climate change. These are some strategies that you can use to ease the mental burden posed by climate change:

  • Try not to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of climate change, and instead take small actions in your own life that can help. Reducing your reliance on single-use plastics, for instance, is a small change that can make a big difference.
  • Avoid the over-consumption of climate-related news. The media can make climate change feel as if it’s an apocalyptic problem that cannot be solved, and the reality is, scientists, medical professionals and the general public are working each day to address the impact of climate change.
  • Acknowledge and validate your feelings. You are not alone in your stress and anxiety, and knowing that you have support from friends, colleagues or a mental health professional can help ease those feelings.

What Are Some Signs of Climate Change-Induced Health Issues?

Some signs of climate-induced health issues may include respiratory symptoms, cardiovascular issues, gastrointestinal problems or increased feelings of anxiety and depression related to climate change.

Vulnerable Populations and Health Equity Issues

The fact of the matter is, not everyone is equally impacted by climate change. The vulnerable populations who are most at risk of developing health complications as a result of climate change include:

  • Socially vulnerable people
  • Young children
  • Elderly adults
  • Indigenous populations
  • People diagnosed with chronic illnesses
  • People with disabilities

Ultimately, a person’s location, age and socioeconomic status will play a significant role in their risk of experiencing climate-induced health issues.

Identifying Communities at Greater Risk

Public health professionals can actively work to identify communities and populations at an increased risk of climate-induced health complications. By collecting data and understanding the importance of health equity, public health professionals can create public health adaptation strategies for climate change.

Addressing Health Disparities in the Face of Climate Change

Public health professionals can begin to bridge the gap for vulnerable populations by:

  • Developing programming that highlights the importance of health equity.
  • Identifying the climate risks that may impact vulnerable populations in a local community.
  • Lobbying for improved infrastructure that will help improve outcomes for vulnerable populations.
  • Advocating for improved access so that vulnerable populations can receive the healthcare that they need.

Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Public Health

Public health professionals can continue to work to develop mitigation and adaptation strategies for public health, particularly as they seek to improve health equity and protect the most vulnerable people in their communities.

Global and Local Policies to Combat Climate-Related Health Issues

Climate change is a large, complex and multi-faceted phenomenon, which means that public health professionals will have to collaborate at the local and global level in order to make an impact. The CDC has outlined priority actions for policymakers to take, which include:

  • Providing the public with credible information.
  • Tracking data related to climate change.
  • Identifying locations and population groups at greatest risk.
  • Partnering with government agencies, universities and research facilities to create adapted strategies.

Community-Based Adaptation and Resilience Building

One of the best ways to begin to address the health issues related to climate change is to garner grassroots support for climate change initiatives. CARE Climate Change expands on the best ways to improve community-based adaptation and resilience building:

  • Provide vulnerable populations with an opportunity to play a central role in decision-making.
  • Promote the importance of sustainable development and eco-friendly initiatives at the community level.
  • Provide factual, relatable information about the impact of climate change and the related health risks.

The Role of Healthcare Professionals in Combating Public Health Issues Due to Climate Change

Healthcare professionals, including those who work in the public health sector, can take an active role in reducing the impact of climate change on human health and well-being.

Educating Patients on Climate-Related Health Risks

Doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals can help their patients become more aware of the climate-induced health risks that they may be facing. By giving contextual knowledge and providing their patients with valuable resources, they can increase awareness about the health risks related to climate change.

Healthcare’s Carbon Footprint and Sustainable Practices

The healthcare industry as a whole is working to reduce its carbon footprint by implementing sustainable practices. Some of the trending sustainable practices in healthcare include procuring supplies and materials from local sources, investing in renewable energy and involving staff in eco-friendly initiatives.

How Can Individuals Contribute to Reducing the Health Risks Associated With Climate Change?

All people can begin taking small actions to reduce the health risks associated with climate change, such as planting landscaping that is natural in your area, investing in energy-efficient appliances and reducing the number of single-use plastics that you use each day.

Discover the Potential of the Public Health Profession at Johnson & Wales University

The public health profession has never been more vital to our daily lives, and at Johnson & Wales University, we offer an online Bachelor of Science in Public Health degree that will prepare you for entry-level public health jobs in education, health promotion, research, and health and policy administration. This degree program provides a comprehensive overview of the field of public health while also prioritizing health equity and advocacy for vulnerable populations.

For more information about completing your degree online, complete the Request Info form, call 855-JWU-1881, or email [email protected].

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