Climate change is altering our bodies and changing our lives every day. But as with all public health crises, the health impacts of climate change are not evenly felt. Those who already suffer the brunt of systemic inequalities are also those who face the most severe consequences of climate change.
One of the most serious effects on our health is the sharp uptick in droughts and drought conditions worldwide. Access to drinking water is only the tip of the iceberg regarding the health risks associated with shortages. Increasingly severe and prolonged drought periods impact sanitation, nutrition, and air quality. They can also lead to more disease. West Nile Virus, carried by mosquitoes breeding in stagnant water, is the leading mosquito-borne disease in the continental United States. Also, drought conditions can increase dangerous fungi in soils that cause “Valley Fever.” This dangerous fungal disease is a growing problem in Arizona and California.
Like dry conditions, wet conditions such as flooding, hurricanes, and cyclones that impact sewage systems and water sources can intensify the risk for diseases such as norovirus, hepatitis, malaria, and dengue. In the book Changing Planet, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do About It, Paul Epstein and Dan Ferber explain that the strong winds from hurricanes, cyclones, and other extreme storms can carry infectious agents over thousands of miles, introducing pathogens to regions ill-equipped to handle them. For example, in 2022, flooding from Hurricane Ian led to an influx of deadly bacterial infections from Vibrio vulnificus, or the “flesh-eating” bacteria, with over 65 cases and 11 deaths reported in Florida.
Research from the Fourth National Climate Assessment indicates that climate change and warming temperatures contribute to increased levels of particulate matter and ozone—elements of harmful air pollution such as smog. These amplified levels of particulate matter and ozone contribute to a wave of new and uncertain health outcomes related to increased morbidity and mortality. In particular, wildfire smoke—capable of traveling thousands of miles and yet another consequence of worsening droughts—and other pollutants can penetrate deep into our respiratory and circulation systems, triggering problems related to inflammation such as asthma, depleted immunity, respiratory conditions, diabetes, and hypertension.
The effects of air pollution are not limited to the here and now, putting the health of future generations at risk. In a recent study conducted by the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom and Hasselt University in Belgium, researchers found that “unborn babies have air pollution particles in their developing lungs and other vital organs as early as the first trimester.” What’s more, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the healthcare costs related to air pollution will rise from $21 billion in 2015 to over $175 billion by 2060.
Though the various health risks associated with climate change are scary and overwhelming, those with adequate healthcare and resources can combat them successfully. Vulnerable populations and those who lack financial resources are not so lucky. Marginalized groups and communities, such as people of color and those in low-income zip codes, face inflated risks due to systemic inequalities such as racism and discrimination.
Dr. Robbie M. Parks, Ph.D., a professor at Columbia University, explains that “It’s not just about exposure. It’s also about your preparedness and resilience. The United States is a microcosm for the world. The story is how unequal the health detriments of climate change are for vulnerable populations—in terms of increased exposure and how these communities lack the resources to recover from and combat environmental insults.”
According to a 2021 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, minorities are the most likely to live in areas that suffer the brunt of climate change—areas with the highest projected escalation of climate-related morbidity and mortality. The EPA found that due to pernicious historical policies such as redlining, Black individuals are over 41 percent more likely to live in areas with the highest projected increases in premature death due to extreme heat and poor air quality.
Likewise, Hispanic individuals are 21 percent more likely to live in the hottest parts of cities, and yet a third of Hispanic households lack access to air conditioning, leaving them susceptible to extreme heat exposure and its health-related impacts. As Hispanics and Latinos make up almost half of all agricultural workers and a third of construction workers in the United States, a 2016 report by the National Resources Defense Council found that “U.S. Latinos are about three times more likely to die on the job from heat-related causes than non-Hispanic whites.”
An often-overlooked minority group that faces some of the most profound health risks from climate change are Asian and Pacific Islanders. In a 2020 study, researchers found that most major EPA violations in the Pacific Islands are associated with pollution from U.S. Military Sites. In Guam, the Anderson Air Force Base—a site placed on the National Priority List in 1992 due to hazardous substances—sits in an aquifer that provides drinking water to over 70 percent of the island’s residents. According to census bureau data, almost a quarter of Guam residents live below the poverty line. They have no say in their generational exposure to fuel compounds, lead, and heavy metals, and they also lack the resources needed to protect themselves from harmful pollutants.
Beyond ethnic and racial minorities, all low-income communities are more likely to have their health be disproportionately affected by climate change. “This kind of inequality is a moral, ethical component of climate change that is easy to understand but is often overlooked,” says Dr. Parks. A 2017 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that people with low socioeconomic status are more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards and have a limited capacity to prepare themselves for extreme climate events. Similarly, the Shriver Center on Poverty Law found in 2020 that 70 percent of the United States’ most hazardous waste sites are located within one mile of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-assisted housing facilities.
The ironic crux of the climate crisis’s disproportionate and damaging health impacts on vulnerable populations is that those who suffer the most contribute to climate change the least. In 2021, researchers found that “people in the global top 1 percent of income cause twice as much consumption-based CO2 emissions as those in the bottom 50.”
Those with access to financial resources and the capacity to create systemic change must not take that responsibility lightly. “It’s a classic balance between individual and collective action,” comments Dr. Parks. “High net individuals have one of the greatest capacities to decrease their carbon footprints.”
As custodians of wealth, our small, individual decisions to protect our environment, such as impact investing, choosing to fly commercially, or driving an electric car, carry far more weight than we know. To protect our health and to effect positive, systemic change for the populations who need it the most, we must take action to ensure the health of our planet.