Climate change doesn’t just hurt our environment. It affects food production, insect outbreaks, precipitation. And, as health professionals are starting to see, it’s causing problems for human health.
According to the Michigan Climate and Health Adaptation Program, there are five serious ways that climate change is impacting Michiganders' health. They are:
- Heat-related illness and mortality
- Exacerbation of respiratory diseases
- An uptick in carbon monoxide poisoning and other injuries related to extreme weather
- Waterborne diseases from extreme flooding
- Vector-borne diseases like Lyme disease and West Nile virus
Lorri Cameron and Aaron Ferguson work with the Michigan Climate and Health Adaptation Program, which works to address the public health issues caused by climate change.
Cameron says we’re already starting to experience these health problems on both local and international levels. In Michigan, for instance, changing weather patterns have led to increased incidences of Lyme disease and West Nile virus, both insect-borne illnesses.
“As temperatures have warmed, and as the environment has changed, it’s promoted the spread of mosquitoes and ticks that carry these infectious diseases,” Cameron explained.
Hotter summers also have a more direct impact on health in Michigan. Emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and even deaths from heat-related illnesses have increased in recent years, according to Cameron. Higher precipitation is another problem. Heavier rain, snow, and ice can lead to accidents and serious flooding.
“We definitely need to be responding now to these threats, because these threats are here and now,” Cameron said.
To deal with the growing threat of climate change, Ferguson works with local governments and communities to develop public health programs. The goal is to teach people to respond to climate-related health problems, and to help governments plan for health emergencies related to climate change.
According to Ferguson, some groups are affected more than others.
“In general, we’re concerned about those that are most vulnerable to these climate impacts,” Ferguson said. These vulnerable groups include children, the elderly, and those experiencing poverty or homelessness.
Abdul El-Sayed, formerly the head of the City of Detroit's Health Department, says the link between climate and health reveals some startling inequities in society.
People of color, says El-Sayed, are more likely to live in the communities most impacted by climate change. And they are also less likely to have the resources to be able to adapt to the challenges posed by a changing climate.
“Those who are best able to cope are those for whom wealth and access, and comfortable neighborhoods, and big houses, and stable jobs are most likely to protect them. And for folks who have been systematically marginalized over a long period of time, we’re gonna see quite the opposite,” El-Sayed said.
He points to Hurricane Katrina as an example. More than 1,800 people died during the category 3 hurricane, and many people living in low-income communities couldn't afford to evacuate in time.
People with limited resources also have less time to engage with local politicians to advocate for their communities.
“The ability to go to a community meeting, to petition your elected officials — that’s a consequence of how much time you have on your hands, how much money your time earns you,” El-Sayed explained.
El-Sayed says that tackling climate change will require an international effort, but he says there are still ways people can help at the local level. That includes reducing and recycling waste, petitioning local politicians, and utilizing mass transit systems.