Most people know that if we don’t take action, climate change will leave a hotter, more chaotic, and more dangerous world for our children and grandchildren. But fewer think about the way it is hurting our health right now.
As primary care physicians, we are deeply worried about the impact of the climate crisis on our health — and on our health-care system — in Fort Worth and beyond. It is, in effect, a slow-motion pandemic that too many health-care professionals and policymakers are ignoring.
Let’s start with the most obvious effect of global warming: It’s getting hotter. Extreme heat waves are becoming more common. In July, temperatures in parts of India soared over 120 degrees, affecting millions of men, women, and children.
Recent reports suggest that North Texas will probably experience more droughts and temperatures as high as 120 degrees in the coming decades. These create serious danger, especially for the elderly, the poor and those who work outside.
Climate change also has a significant impact on the air we breathe. A hotter world increases the likelihood that ozone and other air pollutants will intensify. Warmer temperatures brought on by climate change contribute to the formation of smog, an irritant that the American Lung Association warns “acts like a sunburn on your lungs [and] may trigger an asthma attack.” Children and adults with asthma will suffer.
In addition, our lungs are at serious risk of being exposed to the smoke created by an increase in forest fires. Drier, hotter conditions are extending the fire season in many areas. According to a recent report, the wildfire season in the western U.S. is more than three months longer and burns six times as many acres as in the 1970s. Already, this is making breathing harder for millions.
As the climate of more areas begins to resemble tropical regions, disease-carrying insects will spread to new areas. And there will be an increase in mosquitoes, which also carry dangerous and deadly diseases. Already in Tucson, Ariz., the mosquito season is almost one-third longer than it was the 1980s.
Warmer oceans and other effects of climate change also increase the strength of hurricanes and increase rainfall and flooding. That’s not only a risk to property, but to lives and health.
After Hurricane Harvey, the Houston area saw major releases of toxic chemicals into the air and water from flooded petrochemical plants. As Texas Physicians for Social Responsibility has pointed out, health conditions inevitably deteriorate during disasters.
All of this will not only damage our health, but our health-care system as well. The national debate over our health-care delivery and insurance must recognize the rising costs associated with climate change. Our Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance systems will be stressed as the impacts increase.
We must dramatically reduce the pollution that is causing climate change by moving to clean energy sources — and get ready for the changes that are already coming at us. That means making our infrastructure more resilient, as well as educating health care professionals about the effects of climate change and recognizing it in our public-policy choices.
The climate crisis is a public health crisis. It’s time we started treating it like one.