Sukham Blog – A monthly column focused on South Asian health and wellbeing.
When I see or hear the words Climate Change, I conjure up mental images of global warming, rising temperatures, melting ice caps, rising ocean levels, increasing CO2 and methane emissions, more frequent extreme weather events such as flooding, drought, and wildfires, and our planet Earth rapidly becoming less habitable for present and future generations. My mind does not turn immediately to the ongoing impact on human health, and the decreased quality of life that brings for people, something that is also happening today. Climate change is a big driver of poorer health and circumstance, resulting in hardship and loss of contentment – loss of Sukham for millions of our fellow human beings. Climate change and Sukham are intertwined.
We – the general public – need to be acutely aware of all the ways climate change can affect our health. We need to learn how we as individuals, as communities and as nations can respond. Climate change as a current and future public-health crisis is not getting the attention it desperately needs.
We often hear about the effects of air pollution on our respiratory system and eyes, and the need to take precautions, especially for those with asthma and other respiratory ailments. Plants produce pollen for longer periods in warmer conditions. Grass pollen and plant growth increase with increased carbon dioxide concentrations, causing longer and more intense allergy seasons. For some individuals, including this author, the allergy season now stretches from early spring into late fall. In her 2019 Scientific American article, Emily Holden describes the associated worsening of respiratory illnesses and heart and lung disease. There are several other health impacts that we will discuss. However, climate change is not just making people sicker. Dr. Renee Salas, an Emergency Medical Physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School leads a working group of over 70 U.S. organizations, institutions, and centers working at the nexus of climate change and health. “The climate crisis is impacting not only health for our patients but the way we deliver care and our ability to do our jobs. And that’s happening today,” she says. For example, changing heat patterns affect the way in which prescription medicines work. Climate events impact the availability of critical medical supplies in hospitals. Disruption of electric power supply to homes, hospitals, and clinics puts the lives of patients at risk. Evidence is mounting for decreased survival of cancer patients due to treatment disruption caused by extreme weather events. These are just some of the ways the health care we receive is being impacted.
The accompanying infographic from the National Center for Environmental Health at the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) provides an easy-to-understand overview of these health impacts of climate change. Coupled with other natural and human-made health stressors, it influences human health and the spread of disease in a number of ways. Physical, biological and ecological systems are impacted. The four primary manifestations of climate change are portrayed in the center of the graphic. Together, these manifestations drive eight primary responses: extreme heat, severe weather, air pollution, water quality, increasing allergens, environmental degradation, impacts on food and water supply, and changes in the ecology of vectors – agents such as mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, parasites and microbes, which carry and transmit infectious pathogens into other living organisms, thereby spreading a variety of diseases. These eight primary responses in turn result in heat-related illnesses, asthma and respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, mental health impacts, forced migration, civil conflict, malnutrition, and a wide range of diseases ranging from diarrhea and cholera to malaria, dengue, chikungunya, and the West Nile virus. The complete list is frightening.
The CDC points out that some of the existing health threats will intensify and new, as yet unknown health threats will emerge. Some of these impacts are global, others are national and/or regional. Children are disproportionately impacted by some of the health issues. Health inequity puts parts of the population at higher risk, based on their age, economic status, geographic location, and access to resources. The U.S. Global Change Research Program published a detailed scientific assessment describing how climate change is already affecting humans, and what we may expect in the years to come. This is an excellent resource for those who want a deep dive on this subject.
What is being done about this public health crisis? The US National Academy of Medicine (NAM) is leading the way in collaboration with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). They are developing an initiative to comprehensively assess the health risks of climate change and develop strategies to address both drivers and impacts. In October 2020, they announced the NAM Grand Challenge on Human Health and Climate Change. This is a multi-year strategic initiative to develop public-private partnerships with three objectives: develop a comprehensive and long-term roadmap for transforming systems — such as health care, transportation, infrastructure, or energy – which impact or are impacted by climate change, with a focus on human health, well-being, and equity; mobilize all actors and institutions in the health community; and launch a global competition to foster innovative interdisciplinary research and actionable solutions at the intersection of climate change and human health. Several other private and governmental efforts are underway across the world.
What can you and I do to help? Learn more about these impacts and the response. Inform and educate our friends and family. Support ongoing efforts and advocate for local and national programs to combat it. We cannot afford to do nothing. The health and Sukham of our fellow humans and that of future generations are at stake!
Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within the South Asian community. Sukham provides curated information and resources on health and well-being, aging, and life’s transitions, including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death and bereavement. Contact the author at [email protected].