While the effects of climate change
on weather are frequently mentioned in the news, the public health implications of climate change, other than those related to disasters, are less often highlighted. This is the topic that Dr. George Luber
, associate director for climate change at the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, covered in a recent lecture at the University of Georgia. In his insightful and wide-ranging comments, Luber discussed myriad public health impacts of climate change and related phenomena such as extreme weather, stressing that impacts are locally specific. Luber emphasized that climate change mitigation will not be enough to curtail the harmful effects of high carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere; mitigation must be augmented by adaptation strategies to combat the effects of climate change already occurring and those that will occur.
One public health issue related to climate change that is rarely brought up is its impact on mental health. Luber cited a survey that found that the top fear of children aged 11-14 is climate change
. This finding is related to what Luber called the “anticipatory effects” of climate change: a perception among children that climate change is so ominous as to make them feel almost paralyzed and helpless in the face of such a significant challenge. Other mental health consequences of climate change noted by Luber include those faced by survivors of natural disasters or groups impacted by cultural loss, for example, indigenous cultures in periglacial environments whose way of life is being significantly altered due to permafrost melting.
The public health consequences of climate change are far-reaching. Beyond mental health, Luber discussed the impacts of heat waves, drought (shown above), pollution and pathogenic diseases. Heat waves, like the 2003 European heat wave, can cause tens of thousands of deaths, particularly among vulnerable and elderly populations.
As Luber explained, cities capture heat (the urban island heat effect
) and can trap air pollution, ground level ozone, and concentrations of particulate matter (such as pollen), exacerbating allergies. With more frequent and extreme precipitation and storms, infrastructure system capacity may be overwhelmed, outbreaks of waterborne diseases may become more common, and polluted runoff that produces algal blooms and toxins in the water can be expected to increase. Vector-borne diseases are likely to expand in geographic range, putting more people at risk. And food security may be threatened as food staples decline in nutritional content due to climate change.
Polluted runoff can damage aquatic ecosystems.
Luber offered both sobering and hopeful perspectives on these impending impacts. While there are no simple solutions to the public health effects of climate change, he suggested that a more societal-based approach to dealing with climate change, one that involves communities in the discussion of local impacts, can shift the focus of climate change discourse to be more human-focused and inclusive.
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