Climate Change and Human Health: Statistics, Risks, and Resources

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A young child uses an asthma inhaler.Warmer temperatures and extreme weather are causing fundamental shifts in nature, impacting the landscape, animals, and people. Recent examples include the following:

  • More than 4 million acres and 10,000 homes were destroyed in California’s wildfires in 2020, according to The New York Times.
  • Millions of hectares of crops were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people were left without power after a devastating derecho (intense thunderstorm) in the Midwest, according to Science News.
  • Stronger storms are intensifying faster, including Hurricane Delta, which reached Category 4 (winds from 130 to 156 mph) in 36 hours, one of the speediest transitions on record, according to Scientific American.

As these examples show, climate change can have a huge impact on people’s physical and mental health and well-being. According to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, natural disasters impacted more than 39 million people in 2018 — and that’s just one way in which climate change can affect health, today and in the future.

Individuals and organizations looking to better understand the health impacts of climate change, develop prevention strategies, and get involved with community public health programs should first research the issues. A host of climate change and human health resources are available.

Climate Change and Human Health: By the Numbers

The consequences of climate change, including extreme temperatures, rising sea levels, and extreme weather-related events, affect people worldwide. The following data highlights the stark realities about the current impact of climate change on people’s well-being:

  • An article reporting on the impacts of climate change on future air quality and human health published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America notes that air pollution is a contributing factor to the deaths of more than 1 million people in China each year.
  • Extreme precipitation in certain parts of the U.S. is increasing the number of severe flooding events. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 98 people die each year due to floods, mostly by drowning.
  • According to the World Health Organization (WHO), climate change and health are impacted by rising temperatures. For example, lack of staple food production, especially in poor regions, potentially worsens a malnutrition problem that already causes more than 3 million deaths each

Climate change is a problem that affects everyone in one form or another. Still, certain populations in different regions in the world are particularly vulnerable. Consider these facts:

  • Developing countries with weak health infrastructure are most at risk of not coping with, responding to, and preparing for the challenges.
  • In its 2019 Global Peace Index, the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) reported that 971 million people in the world faced climate hazards from storms, floods, fires, and rising sea levels, with Asia-Pacific countries facing the highest risks.
  • Climate change is impacting some regions that typically have colder winters. For example, in addition to shorter winters, Vermont sees longer, hotter summers, increasing Lyme disease incidence, and blue-green algae levels in lakes and rivers, which can impact people’s health.
  • Extreme climate change has led to places in the U.S. warming by 2 degrees Celsius over the last century. Some 34 million people, about 1 in 10 Americans, live in these regions, which include New York City and Los Angeles, according to a Washington Post report.

Why does 2 degrees Celsius matter? Keeping Earth’s average temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 will help avoid catastrophic, irreversible changes to the climate, scientists say.

More than a billion people in Asia will face reduced freshwater availability by the 2050s, according to the U.N. The intensity and duration of heatwaves will increase in U.S. cities that are already challenged by warmer temperatures. Islands in the tropics will experience more intense hurricanes and beach erosion, displacing millions. Overall, climate change is expected to cause 250,000 additional deaths each year between 2030 and 2050, according to the WHO.

Climate Change Statistics Resources

For more statistics on climate change and its impact, consider the following:

Climate Change and Increased Health Risks

What does climate change have to do with people’s health risks? According to the CDC, climate change can influence human health and disease in various ways.

  • Water and food insecurity can lead to malnutrition and diarrheal disease.
  • Increasing allergens and air pollution can affect asthma and other respiratory conditions.
  • Severe weather can lead to injuries, deaths, and mental health issues.
  • Extreme heat can result in fatal heart-related and cardiovascular conditions.
  • Beach erosion can displace people from their homes, leading to stress, anxiety, and depression.

Certain demographics — such as children, older people, or people with chronic or underlying health conditions — are at higher risk.

  • Because of climate change, temperatures are increasing more regularly and heat waves are more intense. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), older adults are especially prone to hyperthermic conditions, such as heatstroke, in the summer Heatstroke can lead to cramps, vomit, headaches, unconsciousness, and even comas.
  • The ties between climate change and human health can often be seen in chronic respiratory conditions, such as asthma. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, a type of air pollution known as ground-level ozone is one of the major causes of emergency room visits and hospitalizations for children with asthma.
  • Precipitation patterns due to climate change are contributing to higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and warmer air temperatures. These conditions contribute to higher allergens and pollen concentrations and create health issues for people with allergies. According to the CDC, increased pollen is linked to asthma attacks and is a major cause of hospitalization for people with respiratory illnesses.
  • In researching the ties between climate change and human health, the role that vector-borne diseases play in people’s lives is hard to ignore. Disease-carrying vectors are organisms, such as mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas, that carry Lyme disease, the West Nile virus, and other diseases. According to the WHO, more than 700,000 people die each year from vector-borne diseases. In the U.S, vector-borne illnesses from mosquito, tick, and flea bites have tripled over the past decade, according to the CDC.

Resources on Climate Change and Increased Health Risks

The following resources provide more insight into the connection between climate change and human health:

Tips and Resources to Help Fight the Effects of Climate Change

Because of the rising climate change threat to health, medical schools are training and preparing doctors to diagnose and treat the impact of climate change, according to a MarketWatch article. Individuals outside the medical profession can also help mitigate the health effects of climate change by making lifestyle changes that reduce carbon emissions and by implementing good public health policy.

Public health professionals, policymakers, and others interested in the health impacts of climate change can learn about prevention strategies and other related public health issues from reliable sources, such as the CDC, WHO, and U.N. For example, the WHO offers planners, policymakers, and other leaders resources on climate change and human health issues to help prepare communities to adapt to current conditions while fighting future climate change concerns. Another CDC resource includes information about a climate and health program  that helps leaders identify the impacts of climate change and the at-risk populations in their communities.

Additional Resources

For more information on strategies and techniques to plan for the impacts of climate change on human health, the following resources offer guidance:

Make an Impact: Climate Change and Human Health

Climate change affects human health in various ways, from extreme weather resulting in injury, death, and mental health issues, to pollutants and allergens causing respiratory ailments, to warmer weather providing a fertile environment for disease-carrying mosquitoes and other pests. Everyone’s vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, but children, older people, and poorer communities often bear more of the risk.

To combat current climate-related health issues and prepare for future ones, medical professionals, policymakers, and individuals should be aware of the facts. These health challenges can be mitigated through initiatives that reduce carbon emissions, public health policies that consider climate change, and other steps. With everyone working together, we can help prevent illness and death while creating a sustainable environment, economy, and society for future generations.