What is climate change?
Climate change is an all-encompassing term that refers to the changes of the earth’s climate. It tends to be used synonymously with global warming, though the warming of the planet is just one type of climate change. This rise in temperature is caused by greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere that would otherwise be released into space.
Carbon dioxide is one of the most abundant greenhouse gases in the atmosphere because it is a by-product of industrial processes. Another common greenhouse gas is methane, a by-product of livestock farming.
Along with the earth’s rising temperature comes rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and much more. For the purpose of conversations focused on sustainability and protecting the earth for future generations, the term climate change is used to describe the detrimental changes the planet and its inhabitants experience and the impact of those changes on the environment, human health, and well-being.
How does climate change impact our health?
The consequences of climate change aren’t confined only to effects on our external environment. Here are four major ways climate change impacts health:
Access to food
Food security occurs when there is equitable and sufficient access to safe and nutritious food that meets a community’s dietary needs as well as cultural and dietary preferences. Having access to the type of food one needs to maintain a healthy and active life depends on much more than just the proximity of a grocery store or farmers’ market.
Due to advances in agriculture and the ability to ship food to every corner of the globe, many people have come to rely on a global food system that provides a plethora of food choices despite location and seasonality. In a peer-reviewed scientific assessment assembled by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), researchers outlined how climate change is on track to disrupt many aspects of food production, including, “food processing, packaging, transportation, storage, waste, and consumption.”
Food insecurity occurs when the global food system is disrupted at critical points in food production and distribution due to environmental factors that are a direct result of climate change. Such environmental factors include rising temperatures, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and more frequent, severe weather patterns (droughts, flooding, heat waves, and wildfires). These environmental events “speed up the rate of soil loss and land degradation,” which are more likely to affect poor populations, increasing the risk for malnutrition due to reduced nutritional quality of the food produced.
For those who experience seasonal allergies, climate change may worsen or extend allergy season beyond what we’re used to, as pollen production will increase with a longer plant-growing season. Research has also demonstrated that an increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the air – a by-product of climate change – can cause an increase in the effects of ragweed pollen.
The burning of fossil fuels – oil, gas, and coal – contributes to the warming of the atmosphere and exacerbates the effects of such pollution, including an increased risk for breathing problems, asthma, and even cardiovascular disease. In a review of multiple studies on the effects of air pollution on cardiovascular and respiratory health, researchers found that air pollution was highly associated with a rise in blood pressure and doubled the risk for chronic pulmonary (lung) disease, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension.
In addition to dealing with increased fossil fuel pollution, the increasing temperatures that drier areas experience can lead to devastating wildfires, as the United States has seen recently on the West Coast. The smoke and ash produced by wildfires can be detrimental to our health, from minor eye and throat irritation to aggravation of existing heart, lung, and other diseases to an increase of one’s risk for stroke or heart attack.
Extreme weather (especially heat)
The impact of severe weather events is twofold. First, the occurrence of these events, especially hurricanes and wildfires, can demolish entire communities. This creates a recurring need to rebuild and stabilize community infrastructure, from buildings to public health resources. Second, the increasing number of these extreme events diminishes quality of life and puts the health and lives of those communities at risk.
A heat wave, while not necessarily an event that devastates an entire town or city, has serious consequences on health, especially the health of senior citizens and those who are considered low-income. In an interview in Scientific American, a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) director explains how heat waves can cause heat stroke but also a multitude of other issues, such as organ failure, when the body is exposed to high heat over a prolonged period.
One frequently cited heat event hit Chicago in 1995, killing over 700 people. Most of these people were elderly, Black, and living in low-income neighborhoods. The consequences of this event sparked conversations around climate justice, or how racism must be part of the discussion when combating climate change.
The toll that climate change has on mental health is significant. Those who experience severe weather events may be displaced from their homes or get injured or sick. Going through such traumatic situations can drastically heighten anxiety, stress, and feelings of depression.
The changes that climate change can pose over time, such as worsening allergy, heart, and lung issues and decreasing access to nutritious food, can cause increased stress related to these issues. Increased stress can strain one’s overall quality of life and well-being. These mental health issues can be pervasive throughout communities that are disproportionately impacted by acute climate-change effects.
Minimizing your carbon footprint to combat climate change
Speaking about climate change often feels daunting, and grappling with the different paths climate change can take is often mentally and emotionally overwhelming. Don’t keep it bottled up – speak to someone you trust and who may share your anxiety about how to act against climate change. It will be helpful to have emotional support but also someone to take action with!
No one person alone can reverse the effects of climate change, but there are ways for everyone to contribute to a healthier planet. One such way is to focus on minimizing your carbon footprint, or the total greenhouse gas emissions produced by any one individual, organization, or service. This carbon footprint calculator can tell you how you’re contributing to the health of your environment.
After you calculate your total emissions contribution, here are some ways you can lower your (and your community’s) carbon footprint starting today:
- Eat less meat and more vegetables, which should be as local and in-season as possible.
- Swap a car ride for public transportation, a bike ride, or a walk.
- Turn off lights in your home when you’re not using them.
- Commit to producing less waste from food and packaging using the “Five Rs” (refuse, reduce, reuse, rot, recycle).
- Contribute time and/or money to urban farms that implement sustainable farming practices and create more food-secure communities.
- Participate in local government, advocate for climate-change policies, and vote for leaders who support policies promoting a healthier environment.
- Find even more tips on improving the health of your environment here.
How Health Coaches can make a difference in the fight against climate change
A Health Coach’s main role is to inspire and empower clients to make sustainable behavioral changes to improve health and well-being. These changes could include implementing a healthier diet, creating a regular exercise routine, developing healthier boundaries in relationships, or better managing stress and anxiety.
With the help of a Health Coach, these diet and lifestyle modifications can also be centered around improving the environment and acting to slow climate change. Many of the health choices we make every day have some implication on the health of our planet – and vice versa! By actively making choices that benefit you and your local and global communities, you’ll continue to feel empowered to enact greater change.
As a Health Coach (or aspiring Health Coach), you have the opportunity to connect with your clients in important conversations regarding how our health is intricately and intimately connected to the world around us. Each of us has the power to make decisions that can improve global health and happiness.