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How Is Climate Change Affecting Our Health?

 

Climate change will affect everything that keeps us, and our children, healthy—from the abundance and nutritional value of our food supply, to the quality of air that we breathe, to the biodiversity we depend on for the medicines needed to treat disease.

In this 10-minute interview with eFM This Morning, Dr. Aaron Bernstein, our Associate Director and pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, discusses the direct impact of climate change on everything we need to keep us healthy, including changes that are already underway.

Fortunately, we still have hope. Says Dr. Bernstein, “If we successfully reduce the amount of greenhouse gases … we will achieve the single-greatest public health intervention ever realized—more impressive than vaccines, more impressive than antibiotics. And that’s because climate change affects health in pretty much every way you can imagine.” 

Transcript

Jensen: Now then, for many of us climate change might seem like a distant issue. But the truth is that it has an undiscriminating global impact. In fact, on the health of everyone—us, our friends, our acquaintances and, perhaps most devastatingly, our children. Dr. Aaron Bernstein will talk to us now about climate change’s direct impact, already, that we’re seeing. And he’s the Associate Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health. Also, he’s an active pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital. Good morning to you from Seoul.

Bernstein: Good morning.

Jensen: Now, you’ve written extensively about the impact of climate change on biodiversity. Can you just start by describing for us the findings that you’ve come to, and the conclusions that you’ve reached, in explaining the effects of this change?

Bernstein: Biodiversity is a word that refers to the total variety of life on earth. And that includes all the species we know, but also importantly, all the genes and ecosystems. And what we’re seeing with climate change is a reduction in that diversity, for many reasons. Some species have very narrow windows of temperature that they can live in, and as the climate warms, they’re being forced to go up the sides of mountains, or towards the poles, and they’re unable to keep pace with warming, among many other ways in which global warming affects biodiversity. And that loss of diversity has tremendous consequences for health. We rely upon biodiversity pretty much for everything that sustains our health—for the foods we eat, for the medicines we take to treat disease. In many cases, we rely upon the diversity of life to help us understand how our own bodies work in health and disease. In laboratories, we make use of the genetic diversity of life to help us understand how diseases may operate. So there’s a tremendous amount at stake with climate change and its effects upon biodiversity for the health of all people.

Jensen: You also work at a Children’s Hospital in Boston. And you’re seeing the effects on the health of our children right now, even.

Bernstein: Yes. It’s a really crucial message for people to understand that, right now, we have the opportunity to dramatically improve the health of all people, and especially children, through the actions we take related to the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

"It’s a really crucial message for people to understand that, right now, we have the opportunity to dramatically improve the health of all people, and especially children, through the actions we take related to the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere."

And the greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, the most common; methane. And these are largely put into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. If we get this right, if we successfully reduce the amount of greenhouse gases, as scientists have told us we need to, we will achieve the single-greatest public health intervention ever realized—more impressive than vaccines, more impressive than antibiotics. And that’s because climate change affects health in pretty much every way you can think of.

So, you mentioned that it affects the health of people I’m seeing now, and that’s absolutely true. We know that with warming, we see increases in heat waves. And, right now in Boston, we’re having a heat wave. And that leads to many things, including to many more children with dehydration. We also see increased levels of ozone, ground-level ozone, which forms smog—that’s a major lung irritant that is bad for kids with asthma.

Carbon dioxide, itself, regardless of its effects on the global temperature, stimulates the production of pollen from allergenic plants like ragweed. So, people who are allergic to ragweed, which is a very common allergen, have more allergic symptoms, and many children with asthma also have these symptoms. And so these levels of increased pollen can cause respiratory diseases. This is also true, of course, in adults. And, that’s really just the start. There are implications for infectious disease—insects, infectious disease spread by water, and serious concerns about what this means for food, both in terms of its supply and its quality. So, really, if we’re able to do what’s necessary to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions today, we will benefit the health of not only people living right now, but well into the future, for centuries to come.

"If we’re able to do what’s necessary to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions today, we will benefit the health of not only people living right now, but well into the future, for centuries to come."

Jensen: The list really does go on. And, certainly, it’s motivation to do something about this. But, you’ve also stated that climate change is an impediment to further progress in medical research. For what commonly known diseases are we having difficulty finding cures and solutions because of climate change—which may surprise many?

Bernstein: You know, it’s interesting. The National Health Service in Britain asked the question, “How would climate change affect the provision of services to people in the United Kingdom?” And what they found was that they were most vulnerable in their supply chains to their hospitals and also to research facilities, because with extreme weather events—as we’re already seeing with many more of these extreme storms—disrupt the ability to provide power, to provide supplies necessary for research or for provision of care to patients. And so, at the same time that we really need to be focusing on research to treat presently incurable diseases, climate change stands in the way of doing that effectively. And we’ve seen that here in the States, already, with Hurricane Katrina. The entire medical infrastructure was essentially put out of business because of the flooding that resulted. So, you know, there are really huge consequences here that are preventable—both in terms of how we design our healthcare infrastructure, but also in terms of the potential to reduce the risk, moving forward, by reducing our production of greenhouse gases.

Jensen: Do you concede, though, that there are some positive effects of climate change? If not mitigating positive effects, at least changes that we could maybe take advantage of? For example, harvesting species of fruits or vegetables in regions that have been unable to do so, so far?

Bernstein: The two most commonly cited, so-called benefits of climate change are, one, the fact that more people tend to die of cold exposure in the winter than heat exhaustion in the summer. And so, as it warms, we expect that fewer people will die, although there’s been some research, recently, that this may not be actually true. And then, the other argument is often that there will be new areas where we can grow food, which are presently too cold to do that. But it’s particularly in Canada and in Russia.

The research is very clear on this point: Even though there may be some new areas in which we may be able to grow food, overall, the effects of climate change on food production are overwhelmingly negative. And, the longer we wait to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, the more likely we’re going to see those problems accrue.

"[Crops like wheat and soy] will make less protein, and they may contain less nutrients that are vital to health. And that’s of huge significance because most people in the world actually get protein from plants, not from animals."

By the way, I think it’s important to also mention that it’s not just about the temperature going up, and the extreme precipitation that we’re seeing—and that includes heavy rains and droughts—that are of great significance to our ability to produce food. It turns out that for many crops, including some very fundamental crops like wheat and soy, when you increase the levels of carbon dioxide in the air, as we’re doing, it actually affects the nutrition that those plants produce. They will make less protein, and they may contain less nutrients that are vital to health. And that’s of huge significance because most people in the world actually get protein from plants, not from animals.

Jensen: Yes.

Bernstein: And that’s particularly true in the parts of the world where protein, nutrition-deficiency, is already a problem.

Jensen: It comes back to what you were saying about the impact on biodiversity and, I mean, it’s just worth addressing, anyway, because those arguments are out there, and thank you for the challenging them for us. But you have said that education is hugely important, and we need to perhaps remove the suspicions that, you know, the likes of yourself have some sort of “agenda” in putting forward the arguments that you’re making.

Bernstein: Look, I’m a pediatrician. I am in this for the health of children, and people often ask me, as a pediatrician, why I would care about something like climate change? And I care because my job is to take care of the health of children. And I feel that it is my job, in that role, to speak about why climate change is crucially important for the health of children today, and going forward. And, as I said at the outside, we have an enormous opportunity—an opportunity that most people who live on this planet would never have. And that is to extraordinarily affect the health of people for centuries. Carbon dioxide lives in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. So, if we make the difference, today, we will not just benefit people now, but we will benefit and protect the health of children for generations to come. And I think that if we’re able to educate people so that they understand what’s at stake, for the health of themselves and for the health of their children, they’d be much more motivated to engage on this issue.

"If we’re able to educate people so that they understand what’s at stake, for the health of themselves and for the health of their children, they’d be much more motivated to engage on this issue."

Jensen: And I’m sure you’ve inspired a few of us. Especially when we see the impact as you described, all around us. And thank you for doing so, so eloquently!

Bernstein: Thank you so much for having me.

Jensen: That is the voice of Dr. Aaron Bernstein, active pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital and also the Associate Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard School of Public Health.

Photo by Flickr | Marta Maria Fontana | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Produced by eFM This Morning, an English-speaking radio station in Seoul, Korea.

September 24, 2014