In order to cope with climate change and all its effects, we must first build a system capable of serving everyone, including the most marginalized members of society.
Kelly Kenney, a patient of Neelu Tummala, a doctor at the George Washington Medical Faculty Associates, has always experienced some degree of seasonal allergies. In recent years, however, her symptoms have worsened, leaving her with perennial “sinus pains, ear pressure, and congestion.” Her experience is not uncommon. Globally, it is estimated that billions of people are exposed to worsening environmental conditions that may endanger their health. This colossal threat has accordingly become a topic of global concern; in 2015, the Lancet released a report warning that climate change would be the biggest challenge to global health of the 21st century. As our planet heats up due to a build-up of greenhouse gases, more and more people will be put at risk by conditions such as polluted air and water, uninhabitable temperatures, and food insecurity.
Globally, it is estimated that billions of people are exposed to worsening environmental conditions that may endanger their health.
Vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, pregnant people, and children, especially those with pre-existing health conditions, are particularly susceptible to adverse health effects caused by climate change. For instance, the compiled results of 68 separate studies have linked amplified exposure to high temperatures and pollution with increased rates of premature and still births. The climate crisis can also be linked to an increase in hospitalizations and deaths resulting from cardiovascular ailments, which affect elderly populations at higher rates.
Perhaps most at risk, however, are children. The World Health Organization has warned that children, especially those living in developing nations, are most at risk to suffer from the effects of climate change. Lack of access to clean drinking water kills over 500,000 children under the age of 5 annually. Likewise, malaria, a disease linked to climate conditions, kills upwards of a million people, mostly children, each year. These effects are only anticipated to worsen over time; between 2030 and 2050, these numbers are projected to grow by approximately a quarter of a million as a direct result of climate change. Overwhelmingly, these effects will weigh most heavily on the poor.
The impacts of climate change on health will not just be felt by those living in developing nations, although that is what many narratives focus on due to their heightened vulnerability. Rather, even the most developed of nations can expect their citizens to suffer adverse health effects as the climate crisis progresses. In the United States alone, it is expected that rising temperatures will result in tens of thousands of premature deaths per year, on top of those already recorded. Another study outlines the health-related consequences of climate change as they apply regionally to Americans. In the near future, Americans living in the Midwest will be increasingly vulnerable to infectious diseases spread by ticks, while those in the Southwest, Great Plains, Southeast, and Northeast will be largely affected by illnesses related to air pollution. Again, low-income communities will be most affected by these conditions, as poverty condemns its victims to limited healthcare access.
it is possible, however, to envision a world in which we are equipped to cope with climate change and all its health-related effects.
Evidently, climate change poses a clear threat to the physical well-being of hundreds of millions of people around the world, a prediction that is rightfully daunting. It is possible, however, to envision a world in which we are equipped to cope with climate change and all its health-related effects. To me, the key to achieving this vision is well-funded universal healthcare, characterized by the ability for all citizens to access quality health services without suffering financial hardship. Having a strong health infrastructure that is designed to serve everyone will be essential in combatting the health-related effects of environmental degradation. Moreover, it would ideally help alleviate much of the inequality that makes high-risk groups more vulnerable to begin with.
Many of the deaths caused by changing climate conditions, as previously outlined, are entirely preventable. Malaria, for instance, is completely treatable if it is diagnosed early enough. Deaths relating to heat are equally avoidable. The issue is that many people suffering from such ailments do not have access to the means necessary to prevent their deaths. In fact, over half of the world’s population lacks access to affordable and high-quality health services, a factor that contributes to many climate-related deaths. The key to preventing such deaths, aside from directly tackling the root causes of climate change, is to ensure universal access to healthcare. If everyone in the world was able to attain quality affordable healthcare, we could conceivably treat many climate-related conditions before they were able to take lives.
If everyone in the world was able to attain quality affordable healthcare, we could conceivably treat many climate-related conditions before they were able to take lives.
Universal healthcare could also serve another purpose in preventing climate-related deaths: reducing vulnerability to climate change in the first place. It is no coincidence that those most exposed to the effects of climate change are impoverished; impoverished people are more likely to have poor health to begin with, making them especially susceptible to fall victim to climate-related conditions. The American Public Health Association reports that in the United States, limited access to healthcare is one of the major factors that contributes to low-income communities being most at risk to the effects of climate change. Conceivably, access to healthcare (and other social programs) could reduce the health inequalities between wealthy and impoverished citizens, reducing vulnerability to the effects of climate change overall.
Ultimately, it is clear that climate change will result in a global rise in potentially fatal health conditions, particularly for those living in poverty. In tandem with efforts to combat the progression of climate change, our best hope at minimizing and preventing fatalities from such conditions will be ensuring the widespread availability of treatments for them. Climate change is the largest existential threat of our generation, but it is possible to build a world more resilient to its effects. Universal healthcare is the first step.
Art by Darcey Joyce