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Why Climate Change Is the Silent Global Epidemic


When you think about health, your mind probably goes to things like doctor’s visits, medications, or vaccines. You probably think of preventative health measures like eating well and exercising. You’ll likely consider COVID, allergies, viruses, bacteria, injury, or maybe even bug bites as the main daily threats your body could face. For most of us, today’s greatest threat to human health is rarely top-of-mind: climate change.

Katherine Catalano

Deputy Director; Center for Climate, Health and Equity; American Public Health Association (APHA)

Climate change, like an epidemic spreading across borders without restraint, grips our communities, yet we don’t call out of work to treat it. We aren’t even treating the symptoms that we see — we just continue on and hope this disease will cure itself.

Extreme weather events, as a result of climate change, are not just dramatic spectacles on the nightly news; they are threats to our physical and mental health. Hurricanes, wildfires, and rising sea levels are forcibly uprooting entire communities more frequently than ever before. Extreme weather events are leading to water contamination, injury, and death, and are limiting access to crucial health infrastructure in their wake.

Our changing climate is also reshaping our ecosystem, introducing new health challenges. Disease-bearing insects, once confined to certain seasons and geographic locations, now roam further and longer, exposing populations to prolonged risks. Just last year, four U.S. states reported locally acquired cases of Malaria, including the first in Texas in nearly 30 years and the first in Maryland in nearly 40 years.

Intensified heatwaves induce dehydration, heat stroke, and death, with vulnerable groups like the very old, the very young, outdoor workers, student athletes, and people who are unhoused disproportionately affected. Rising temperatures amplify air pollution, worsening respiratory and cardiovascular conditions.

Low-income communities and communities of color, who have been targeted by the placement of highways and industrial facilities and are therefore already overburdened by air pollution, are hit the hardest. Because of the environments in which they live, Black Americans are 40% more likely to have asthma than white Americans, and climate change will only worsen their symptoms.

Climate change and mental health

The mental health effects of the climate crisis are etching permanent marks on our collective psyches. Climate-related disasters give rise to a spectrum of mental health problems, from anxiety to depression and PTSD.

The aftermath of such events has a lasting impact on those directly exposed, and even those who haven’t experienced them directly grapple with climate-induced anxiety; more than two-thirds of U.S. adults (68%) have reported having at least some anxiety about climate change. We need to do more.

The risks associated with climate change are not confined to the pages of scientific reports. They are tangible threats to our well-being and that of our loved ones.

Just as we would take action to stop a bacterial infection in our child, we must act to stop the effects and overall causes of climate change. We must demand greater investments in building healthy, equitable, and resilient communities.

We must demand a rapid and just transition to renewable energy sources and a halt to the development of new fossil fuel infrastructure if we want to slow the destruction caused by the climate crisis. We must also invest in mental health support for communities to deal with the local stresses from pollution and climate change.

Help the planet, help ourselves

The health of the Earth and that of humanity are deeply intertwined. To advocate for our own health, we must advocate for our environment. It may seem overwhelming, given the enormity of climate change’s impacts, but through collective action, we can empower ourselves to minimize its worst impacts on health.

To protect your own health from the impacts of climate change, check the air quality index before outdoor activities and have plans for severe weather. To protect the health of others, volunteer for community-focused actions like educating students about climate change during APHA’s National Public Health Week. And ultimately, join your peers to call for swift, ambitious action from all levels of government and all sectors of the economy to protect the current population and future generations from the worst health impacts of climate change.

Climate change is not an isolated environmental issue; it is a public health crisis that demands our immediate attention and united action. Each of us, regardless of expertise, can play a pivotal role in addressing this crisis. It is time to rise, embrace our collective power, and forge a path toward a healthier present and a more sustainable future for all.

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