How climate change is making us sick
- Guest contribution by alumnus Komlan Amouzou
There is a lot of debate on the subject of climate change. There is a perceptible impression, however, that many people find the topic rather marginal, trivial or even annoying. Yet it affects everyone, no matter where we live or which social status we have. This is particularly true in terms of the health aspects of climate change. Because the climate change impacts on our health are becoming more and more evident. They are demonstrated by current medical research.
Whether it’s the 2021 flood in the Ahr Valley in Germany, this year’s devastating forest fires in several European countries, or droughts and extensive flooding around the world: extreme weather phenomena are not isolated occurrences. It’s impossible to exclude as a common cause. It's also clear by now that these climatic changes are having a negative impact on people’s health – irrespective of where they live and their social status.
A heatwave in Germany claimed around 7,500 lives in 2003 according to details provided by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV). It also caused numerous heat-related illnesses due to dehydration, heat stroke and cardiovascular disease.
An unusually severe thunderstorm in 2016 triggered a public health emergency in the Australian state of Victoria. On just two days, there were 8,500 people who required hospital treatment due to breathing difficulties in , the capital of Victoria, and the surrounding area. There were multiple deaths. These people suffered from so-called thunderstorm asthma, which is caused by increased pollen levels during a thunderstorm and by the fact that the heavy rain and moisture rupture the pollen grains.
What are the known health-related consequences of climate change?
Climate change can influence our health either directly or indirectly. It is not just the it facilitates that are hazardous to our lives and health. Many reveal that climate change is also responsible for social and psychological burdens. Phenomena such as extreme heat, thunderstorms, landslides or heavy rain can generate anxiety, depression or stress and negatively alter the mental health of those affected.
Increased global warming logically results in the rising health impacts of climate change. This has indeed been reported by several scientific institutions in the medical journal ‘The Lancet’. Diabetics and those with cardiovascular or chronic respiratory diseases, small children, elderly people and people with multiple illnesses are especially at risk. This is also seen in the number of deaths among senior citizens that are correlated with heatwaves. Alterations in weather conditions also trigger cardiovascular diseases and encourage the spread of pathogens, infectious diseases and allergies.
The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reports that ticks and mosquitoes, for example, are increasingly transmitting viruses and other pathogens. Those with allergies suffer more because the warmer weather leads to an extension of the pollen season. These heatwaves also involve dehydration and an increased risk of skin cancer as health consequences.
Climate change also results in periods of drought that can wipe out harvests in many regions and lead to famine or malnutrition. This primarily affects countries in the Global South. Such indirect impacts of climate change reinforce already existing social inequalities, which in turn result in greater health inequality.
Is there a way out in sight?
The forecasts sadly indicate that the worst is still to come. The Earth's atmosphere is continuously warming, as illustrated by a graph produced by German infographics platform Statista based on data released by the US space agency NASA: the average temperature in June 2020 was around 2.08 °C above the average annual value for the reference period from 1980 to 2015. Further extreme weather events are anticipated. Climate change could also facilitate the spread of potentially devastating virus strains. This is the finding of a new study conducted by researchers from several universities and published in the scientific journal ‘Nature’. It cites climate change as the most significant health risk. Each further increase in global warming will have severe consequences for the lives and health of individuals.
Many consequences of climate change are sadly irreversible. The extent of these changes can nevertheless be contained, since human activities have caused and continue to exacerbate climate change. We can indeed do something to counteract these developments if we change our lifestyles. What is important here is not just packages of measures issued by governments or organisations. Every single world citizen can contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.