Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and increasingly severe due to continued climate change. In the United States, this summer was among the warmest on record with several states posting the warmest August ever and heat waves impacting much of the country. This year’s Atlantic hurricane season continues to be unusually intense. And even as the summer heat becomes a memory, wildfires raged in California and much of the Pacific Northwest. And of course, the public health response to these hazards is complicated by a global pandemic that has killed one million, infected tens of millions more, and changed the lives of virtually everyone on the planet.
These dual-occurring threats have two key features in common: both climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have pronounced negative impacts on our health and these impacts are inequitably experienced by communities of color. But these threats also differ in important ways. For one, the pace at which individuals experience negative effects from a pandemic versus climate change is different. Secondly, the type of solution that will end the threats is also quite different. This blog post lays out these similarities and differences while highlighting the need for unprecedented communal efforts to address these threats.
Climate Change and COVID-19 Both Harm Health and Exacerbate Inequities
While the health risks associated with COVID-19 are generally widely understood, the adverse health impacts of climate change are more complicated and may be harder to identify.
Some specific examples of how climate change threatens our health include:
- In the U.S., days of extreme heat are associated with thousands of excess deaths per year. Even more moderate hot days that are warm but not extreme are associated with higher rates of morbidity and mortality, particularly among vulnerable populations.
- Beyond the immediate devastation of wildfires, the resulting air pollution can trigger respiratory symptoms, cardiovascular events, and discomfort for people even hundreds of miles away. Emerging evidence that higher levels of air pollution increase the risk of COVID-19 highlights the potential connections between our environment and the current pandemic.
- Beyond the potential for infrastructure damage and acute injury, Atlantic hurricanes and other severe storms are associated with an increase of hospital admissions for cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.
- The geographic range of mosquitos and ticks is rapidly expanding due to shorter winters and changing precipitation patterns, placing more people across the U.S. at higher risk of infection from the pathogens they carry, including Lyme disease and West Nile, Eastern Equine, and Zika viruses.
- Changing environmental conditions and ecosystem damage threatens the livelihood and wellbeing of communities in the US and around the world. Concrete examples range from population displacement due to projected sea level rise, prolonged droughts, or wildfires, to threats to the way of life for communities dependent on collapsing fisheries or recreational waters closed due to toxic algal blooms, and decreased worker productivity due to days of extreme heat.
The list goes on; the adverse impacts of climate change on human health are diverse and pronounced. As with the current pandemic, while we will all be impacted by our changing climate, not all communities or individuals will be equally affected. A cruel reality is that structural and systemic disadvantages render low-income and/or communities of color more prone to the harms of climate change, thereby exacerbating existing health inequalities and inequities.
Climate Change and COVID-19 Impacts Occur on Different Timelines
The onset and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have rippled through our lives with disconcerting speed. However, the causes and consequences of climate change operate on a much longer timescale. With continued climate change, we expect that extreme weather events such as heat waves, hurricanes and other severe storms, droughts, and floods – which are already occurring with alarming regularity – will become more common and/or more severe in the coming decades. Slower moving hazards are also increasingly affected by the changing climate, including degraded air quality, increasing risk of vector-borne illnesses (e.g., Lyme disease, West Nile encephalitis) and waterborne diseases (e.g., Cryptosporidium, Vibrio), urban flooding, increasing allergies, threats to food safety and availability, and forced migration as some parts of the world are no longer habitable.
Another key difference between COVID-19 and climate change bears noting: the absence of a possible vaccine or other quick intervention to avert the worst effects of climate change. The emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases over more than a century cannot be quickly reversed, and our families and communities cannot be easily immunized against climate change’s consequent health risks. To slow the pace of climate change and avert the worst of the projected impacts, we need to quickly come together as a global community to transform our economies, politics, and lifestyles. These changes need to be informed by reliable scientific evidence of both the risks and the numerous tradeoffs that accompany different policy solutions.
Fortunately, the news on climate change is not all bad. As with the pandemic, it is important to be hopeful about our future and recognize that these are challenges we can solve by working together towards a common goal. Many cities and towns across the United States and abroad are taking bold steps towards reducing their carbon emissions and better preparing for the unavoidable impacts of a changing climate. Collectively, these local actions are tremendously important and have a global impact given that most people around the world live in urban areas (82 percent of Americans live in urban areas). Similarly, regions aggressively enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing measures are seeing encouraging results in COVID-19 infection numbers. For both threats, unprecedented national and global coordination will enable even faster progress and ultimately save countless lives.
Gregory Wellenius and Kate Weinberger were awarded a grant in 2019 under the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Health Data for Action (HD4A) program, managed by AcademyHealth, to study the respiratory health consequences of severe storms in children diagnosed with asthma. Findings from their study will help provide clinicians and public health officials with information they can use to guide the response to these extreme weather events.