Environmental effects of climate change on human health

Over the next few decades, unabated climate change is predicted to increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events like heatwaves, wildfires, floods, and storms.

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Heatwaves

In 2015, the average surface temperature of the Earth was highest on record, surpassing the previous record in 2014. In 2016, the average surface temperature was 0.95oC warmer than the 20th century average. When it comes to the forecasted climate change, wet regions are predicted to become wetter and the dry regions drier.

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Wildfires

There has been a significant increase in climate change-induced wildfires across the western USA, putting lives and livelihoods at risk. In the USA, the area burned by wildfires could double by 2050. In Canada, bigger and more frequent fires in the Boreal forests will release vast stores of carbon into the atmosphere, thereby accelerating global warming. For every degree of warming, the forests need a 15% increase in precipitation to compensate for the increased drying. Instead, the forests are getting less rain. Prolonged heatwaves are also likely to increase the risk of wildfires in southern Europe and Russian boreal forests, as well in the Australian outback. There has been a significant increase in the frequency and size of wildfires in Europe and western Russia since the 1970s. Wildfires pose a direct threat to human life and livelihood, and the traumatic experience of losing one’s home can have long-lasting psychological impacts including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Flooding

The latest consensus from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 5th Assessment Report is that sea levels could rise 0.5 metres even with aggressive measures to curtail global warming. A higher sea level would have an enormous impact on the more than 1 billion people living in low-lying coastal regions.

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Storms

In 2011 alone, the USA was battered by 14 weather disasters that cost the government $55 billion. The frequency and intensity of extreme weather events is predicted to increase all over the globe and may have already begun to do so according to a study published in Nature Climate Change in 2012. One of the driving factors for the increased frequency and intensity of storms is the rising sea levels.

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Sources

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Coumou D, Rahmstorf S. A decade of weather extremes. Nat Climate Change. 2012; 2: 491-496.

Dai. Drought under global warming: a review. WIREs Climate Change. 2011; 2: 45-65.

Laura P. Forest fires can heath up the whole planet [Internet]. National Geographic; 2016 [cited 2017]. Available from: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/06/forests-fires-global-warming-boreal-nasa-earth-science/

McMichael AJ. Globalization, Climate Change, and Human Health. New Eng J Med. 2013 April; 368(14): 1335-1343.

McMichael AJ, Lindgren E. Climate change: present and future risks to health and necessary responses. J Intern Med. 2011 July; 270(5): 401-413.

PhysOrg. New research links tornado strength, frequency to climate change [Internet]. PhysOrg; 2014 [cited 2017]. Available from: https://phys.org/news/2014-08-links-tornado-strength-frequency-climate.html

Smith KR, Woodward A, Campbell-Lendrum D,  Chadee DD, Honda Y, Liu Q et al. Human health: impacts, adaptation, and co-benefits. In: Field CB, Barros VR, Dokken DJ, Mach KJ, Mastrandrea MD, Bilir TE et al., editors. Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press; 2014, pp. 709-754.

Schleussner F, Lissner TK, Fisher EM, Wohland J, Perrette M, Golly A et al. Different climate impacts for policy-relevant limits to global warming: the case of 1.5oC and 2oC. Earth Syst Dynam. 2016 April; 7: 327-351.

Westerling AL, Hidalgo HG, Cayan DR, Swetnam TW. Warming and earlier spring increase western US forest wildfire activity. Science. 2006 August; 313(5789): 940-943.

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