Journal Logo

In the News

The Health Effects of Climate Change

AJN, American Journal of Nursing: April 2022 - Volume 122 - Issue 4 - p 14
doi: 10.1097/01.NAJ.0000827272.52400.6e
  • Free

Abstract

FU1-8
Figure:
Marshall wildfire victims Cheryl and Nathan Ruff, and neighbor Lisa Laguardia, in the Ruffs' former garage in Superior, Colorado. Photo by Ron Rovtar Photography / Alamy Stock Photo.

Climate disasters are becoming more frequent and deadly. While disaster events in the United States averaged 7.4 annually for the past 41 years, the annual average for the last five years was 17.2. The human toll has also climbed, rising from roughly 300 deaths a year between 1980 and 2010 to 688 lives lost in 2021 alone.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the United States underwent 310 climate disasters between 1980 and 2021—including wildfires, droughts, severe storms, tropical cyclones, flooding, winter storms, and freezes. Each cost over $1 billion, although individual events can range higher, especially when they occur in densely populated areas. Hurricane Ida in 2021, for example, is estimated to have cost $75 billion in property losses and damage to the power infrastructure, and losses from the February 2021 winter storm and accompanying cold wave that hit Texas especially hard are estimated at $24 billion. Cumulative estimated costs of these climate events over the 41-year span analyzed by the NOAA come to $2.155 trillion.

While alarming, these calculations of frequency, cost, and immediate death from natural disasters don't reflect the full effect of climate change on human health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization (WHO), climate-related disruptions of physical, biological, and ecological systems are associated with respiratory and cardiovascular disease, injury, premature death, poor mental health, food- and waterborne illness, and other infectious disease.

Climate change can also affect social determinants of health, such as income and access to health care, resulting in health consequences for vulnerable populations, including women; children; the elderly; and people with underlying health conditions; as well as those marginalized by poverty, displacement, race, or ethnicity. The WHO predicts that between 2030 and 2050, climate change worldwide will cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat.

It's important to note that the health sector is a contributor to climate change, responsible for 4.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, mostly related to the health care supply chain, including manufacture, transport, and disposal of goods and services. The U.S. health care industry is the largest contributor to these emissions, followed by China and the European Union.

Health care professionals and political leaders have begun to respond. In 2018, the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, in partnership with Health Care Without Harm, launched the Nurses Climate Challenge, a project aimed at mobilizing nurses worldwide to educate 5,000 health professionals on climate and health. Having reached its goal within 10 months, the initiative has of this writing educated nearly 35,565 health professionals (visit https://us.nursesclimatechallenge.org for more information).

The Biden administration earmarked $550 billion for climate change investments in its Build Back Better proposal. But as the legislation remains stalled in the Senate, the International Council of Nurses' 2018 position statement, Nurses, Climate Change and Health, calling for nurses to “take immediate action to build climate resilient health systems” becomes all the more crucial. Among recommended measures are developing “models of care to reduce unnecessary travel” and “climate-informed” approaches to infectious and communicable diseases.—Dalia Sofer

Copyright © 2022 Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. All rights reserved.