Climate change is already having a lasting – potentially irreversible – effect on our natural environments. The latest grave warning from the world's leading climate scientists suggests it also poses an increasing risk to your personal health.
The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a new report on Monday, in which hundreds of climate researchers around the world warned about "dangerous and widespread disruption in nature" in the coming years without a substantial, coordinated effort from world leaders to tackle climate change.
The report also warned — with a "very high" degree of confidence — that a variety of physical and mental health problems will become more prevalent as global temperatures rise, affecting a growing number of people both in the U.S. and around the world.
Heat-related death rates are projected to rise. Excessive wildfire smoke will likely make any respiratory diseases worse. Humans are even at risk of climate change-induced mental health issues, partially stemming from the trauma of living through disasters like wildfires or extreme storms.
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Some of those issues are already here: Climate change has already "negatively affected human health and wellbeing in North America," the report states. The situation is more dire in developing nations, the U.N. report says — low-income countries are likely to be hit the hardest by climate change, due to a lack of resources to mitigate those effects.
Recent record-breaking wildfires have emitted dangerous air pollutants, which can exacerbate lung or heart diseases. Last year's record Northwest heat wave resulted in hundreds of deaths from extreme heat. There's even been a push among health care officials to list "climate change" as an underlying cause for certain cases of medical conditions like asthma and mental health diagnoses like anxiety.
"Warming is projected to increase heat related mortality [and] morbidity," the report says, noting that the severity of the heat's effects on your health will vary depending on your "age, gender, location, and socioeconomic conditions." For instance, the report says extreme heat will cause an especially higher death rate among the elderly and people living in urban areas, which absorb and retain lots of heat.
The report also says warming temperatures from climate change will increase the risk of tick- and mosquito-borne diseases, which have already seen an uptick over the past two decades. Warmer weather will allow for larger populations of those insects in wider geographic areas across North America, according to the UN, which "will increase risk of mosquito-borne diseases including West Nile Virus, chikungunya, and dengue [fevers]."
Mental health is also a major concern in the U.N. report. Younger generations especially have been found to suffer from increased rates of anxiety and depression, stemming from concerns over climate change and the potential for communities to be displaced by its effects. And the increasing frequency of climate-related disasters, like wildfires or other extreme weather events, is expected to cause an uptick in post-traumatic stress disorders.
In North America, research has linked the ongoing and potential effects of climate change "to strong emotional reactions; depression and generalized anxiety; ecological grief and loss; increased drug and alcohol usage, family stress, and domestic violence; increased suicide and suicide ideation," the report notes.
Extreme heat alone can worsen mental health issues, by increasing people's irritability and symptoms of depression, and putting people with mental health problems in vulnerable positions if they don't have adequate shelter, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
The U.N. report says the consequences in North America could be dire, projecting increases in suicide "in Mexico and the U.S. by 2050 due to rising temperatures."
The report includes a number of suggestions the world could take to avoid some of these worst-case health scenarios. Those include rolling out more effective warning systems for extreme heat and weather events, and improving building designs and urban planning strategies to better prepare residents for heatwaves.
Governments should also provide mental health services that take climate-related stress and trauma into account, and offer climate-related training to mental health professionals, the report suggests.
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