Climate change and health: How the environment affects us

November 24, 2021 - 20 min read

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What is climate change?

Who is at risk?

6 health effects of climate change

How to stay healthy with climate change

4 actions to reduce your contribution to climate change

Climate change and health are linked in more ways than one

No matter where you live, you probably experienced some unusual or extreme weather effects this year. There is no shortage of climate change facts that show how much the state of the planet is changing.

For one, global temperatures in July 2021 were higher than any other July on record.

On top of this, the concentration of carbon dioxide​​​​​​​ in our atmosphere is the highest it has been in human history.

But how does all of this affect you? And what is the effect on your team members, who may be scattered around the world?

How does climate change affect health on a personal level?

The truth of the matter is that climate change and health are inextricably linked. Global rising temperatures and extreme weather conditions put all of our health and well-being at risk. But some communities are particularly vulnerable.

Let’s take a look at the health impact of climate change. We’ll also discuss what you can do to reduce your contribution to global climate change.

What is climate change?

Climate change is the gradual shift in temperature and weather patterns experienced in our planet’s environment. The Earth and its atmosphere are a complex system. Changes in one part of the system can gradually, and sometimes rapidly, trigger changes in other parts of the system. 

Over time, the combination of global warming and human activity has resulted in significant climate alterations. The aggregate impact of seemingly small changes can quickly become large, such as when the average temperature of the ocean rises just a bit or the Gulf Stream current shifts, bringing large storms into more heavily populated areas.

The earth’s naturally rising temperatures have played a role in climate change. But the problem also stems from human contribution.

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The industrial-scale burning of fossil fuels has resulted in greenhouse gas emissions. These gases degrade the environment. This affects everything that lives within it.

As a species and a society, we are vulnerable to the health of our climate and environment. When the environment around us is less healthy, that damage reflects in our own health and well-being.

Increasingly, business and political leaders as well as scientists and ordinary people are starting to understand this connection. Climate change and health are tightly integrated and must be addressed as equal issues of importance.

Who is at risk?

Even though we all share the same planet, some groups of people are more at risk for exposure to climate change than others.

In many aspects of our society, it is often marginalized people or groups that are discriminated against that are most vulnerable to danger. When it comes to climate change, things are no different.

According to the American Public Health Association, it’s people of color, low-income communities, and those who live on small islands who are most heavily impacted by climate change and its health effects. People with disabilities, young children, and the elderly are also at high risk.

This is due to a variety of factors.

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People of color are subject to structural racism. This weakens their social capital and inhibits their access to proper health systems and healthcare. And it limits their ability to protect themselves.

Anyone living in a low-income community is at a systemic disadvantage for:

People living on small islands are especially vulnerable to natural disasters and rising sea levels. Plus, they often lack sufficient socio-economic infrastructure.

Both children and the elderly with health conditions require special care and attention. This makes them sensitive to environmental shifts and dependent on others for support.

However, regardless of which demographic you fit into, nobody is completely safe from the risks that climate change brings.

6 health effects of climate change

By nature, climate change and health issues are intertwined. Both mentally and physically, we are highly susceptible to the dramatic shifts in the environment that climate change brings.

1. Worsening air quality

Climate change and air pollution are closely linked. In addition to driving climate change, widespread industrial activities are a major source of air pollutants. More than 10 million people die every year from pollution-related illnesses.

Poor air quality has an immediate, noticeable impact on well-being and mental health when it curtails outdoor activities. But the physical damage is even worse.

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The worsening quality of our air can give way to several major health concerns. These include:

  • Lung cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Emphysema
  • Bronchitis
  • Asthma

And a variety of other serious respiratory diseases.

Scientists now believe that millions of preterm and underweight newborn births worldwide can be attributed to long-term exposure to air pollution.

It’s clear that climate change and its health effects are a serious concern not just for our current generation but for future generations as well.

2. Water-borne illnesses and diseases

Contaminated water is one of the biggest global health threats. 785 million people lack even a basic drinking-water service. By 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas.

These are just some of the pathogens you could pick up from contaminated water:

  • Typhoid
  • Cholera
  • Hepatitis
  • Gastroenteritis
  • Scabies
  • Giardiasis
  • Campylobacteriosis
  • Amebiasis

Safe and readily available water is important for public health, whether it is for drinking, cooking, or food production.

3. Natural disasters

Erratic weather patterns and the extreme weather events that they cause are major symptoms of climate change. 

As temperatures continue to rise, an increase in natural disasters is likely to follow. Extreme events like droughts, storms, hurricanes, and wildfires are the planet’s natural responses to such drastic climate shifts.

4. Food insecurity

Climate change is already affecting food security. But the severity of the situation is not likely to slow down anytime soon.

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The unpredictable weather patterns that climate change brings put a massive strain on farmers. Their crops do not respond well to increasingly extreme conditions.

This impacts the livelihoods of farmers and drives up the price of available food.

Food insecurity could increase the number of chronically hungry people around the world. Today, 1 in 9 (821 million) people are undernourished due to a shortage of food.

5. Diseases carried by vectors

Vector-borne diseases are diseases carried by blood-sucking arthropods. Some of the most common carriers of vector diseases are mosquitoes, ticks, flies, and fleas.

Changing climates and extreme weather like floods are expected to increase the prevalence of vectors. As a result, there is likely to be an increase in outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue.

Vectors can carry deadly diseases like malaria, Lyme disease, and West Nile virus.

6. Impact on mental health

The combination of all of these issues from climate change can have mental health implications for humans. The stress that comes with living alongside the health risks of climate change has the potential to cause just as much damage as any of the above concerns.

Anxiety, depression, and mental exhaustion and physical exhaustion are our bodies’ natural responses to high stress. Learning how to cope with stress will be crucial to your health.

How to stay healthy with climate change

One of the best ways to marry climate change and healthcare is to take personal responsibility for your state of well-being. Focusing on self-care practices and learned optimism are two of the most constructive things you can do for yourself.

1. Stay cool and safe during a heatwave

The dangerous health outcomes of extreme heat include heat exhaustion and heatstroke. In the July 2021 heatwave in the Pacific Northwest, all-time temperature records killed at least 112 people.

During periods of extreme heat, keep your body cool by staying indoors and using a fan or air conditioner. Stay hydrated by drinking enough water.

2. Protect yourself from vectors like mosquitoes

According to the World Health Organization, vectors cause over 17% of all infectious diseases. This results in more than 700,000 deaths annually.

If you are traveling to a malaria area, invest in a mosquito net. Wear light clothes that cover your entire body and keep insect repellent handy.

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If you have the means, you can also donate to organizations like the Against Malaria Foundation. Malaria is preventable with the right interventions. Yet, according to the CDC, an estimated 409,000 people died of malaria in 2019.

3. Eat a healthy diet

Your diet plays a vital role in your well-being. Make sure you consume a wide range of foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains for optimal health.

In the future, produce is not likely to be as diverse as it is now. Find alternate fruit and produce to consume that has less of an impact on the earth.

4. Take care of your mental health

One of the biggest climate change and health issues we can expect to face is an epidemic of poor mental health.

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Adopting good habits like journaling and mindfulness reduces your stress levels. If you’re struggling and feeling alone, don’t be afraid to ask for help from a health professional.

4 actions to reduce your contribution to climate change

Prioritizing environmental health will help promote your personal health. Here are some steps you can take to reduce your contribution to climate change.

1. Reduce your food and water waste

Food and water are precious resources. Acting as though they are infinitely available will get us nowhere. It’s time to start reducing how much you waste.

You can do this by using water and food more intentionally. Don’t buy more than you absolutely need, and take short showers instead of baths.

2. Make your home energy efficient

If we all switched to renewable energy sources, we could prevent 4–7 million deaths per year.

Make your home more energy efficient by switching from electrical to renewable energy sources, such as solar panels. Weatherize your home with insulation to prevent heat from escaping.

3. Cycle and walk instead of drive

Carbon dioxide emissions are one of the greatest contributors to climate change. If you opt to cycle or walk instead of drive, you can drastically alter your carbon footprint.

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Choosing to omit driving every day is not only good for the planet, it’s also good for you.

A study found that people who cycled to work were 45% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease and 46% less likely to develop cancer.

This wellness trend is a win-win for your body and the environment.

4. Choose sustainable, eco-conscious products

You can express your desire to make the world a better place by practicing conscious consumerism.

Opt for eco-friendly products that are locally made, use recycled materials, and have less packaging. Shop from eco-conscious companies that sell ethical and sustainable products.

Climate change and health are linked in more ways than one

Climate change and human health are inescapably connected.

But climate action isn't just about protecting our own health. For many, taking action to find more sustainable ways to live and maintain a healthy environment gains greater purpose for the sake of future generations. Each of us has a personal stake in doing what we can to protect the air, water, and land that sustains us. 

At BetterUp, we promote holistic individual performance and well-being.

Get in touch with one of BetterUp’s expert coaches to see what else you can do to stay healthy while fighting climate change.

strengthen well-being - coaching for individuals

Published November 24, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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