Research Study: “The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment,” published by The Global Change Research Program, 2016
In 2016, the United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) published a report entitled, “The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment.” This is perhaps the most important climate change research to come out of the United States in the past decade, because it shows the urgency of combating climate change.
The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) was established by Presidential Initiative in 1989 and mandated by Congress in the Global Change Research Act (GCRA) of 1990 to “assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change,” according to its website. It is funded through contributions from several branches of the US government, including the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of Energy, among many others.
The study was carried out by over 100 experts from 8 different government agencies, and is intended to, “inform public health officials, urban and disaster response planners, decision makers, and other stakeholders within and outside of government who are interested in better understanding the risks climate change presents to human health.”
“The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States” shows that current and future climate impacts expose many people in the United States to public health threats. Climate change has already and will continue to cause elevated temperatures, more frequent or severe weather patterns, and poor air quality. These in turn will have a variety of effects including the increased transmission of disease through food, water, and parasites; injury and death from extreme weather events, or exposure to toxic substances from damage due to these weather events; and stressors to mental health and well-being.
The report breaks the impacts of climate change into several categories: temperature related death and illness; extreme events; vector borne disease; water-related illnesses; food safety, nutrition, and disruption; and mental health and well-being. The report also includes a section on the populations of concern, in which it identifies the sectors of the population at heightened risk of climate change related consequences.
Effects of heightened temperatures include heat related death and illness, and worsened outdoor air quality which in turn can cause premature death or cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses. Similarly, extreme weather events—which will be exacerbated under higher average global temperatures—can cause death, injury, or illness, while exacerbating underlying medical conditions. Additionally, these weather events disrupt infrastructure and incur huge damage costs across the country.
Other impacts of climate change include the proliferation of vector borne disease and water-related illnesses. Insects such as mosquitos, ticks, and fleas carry infective pathogens (viruses, bacteria, protozoa, etc.). Climate change will cause earlier seasonal tick activity and northward range expansion, and will likely interact with other factors, such as how pathogens adapt and change, the availability of hosts, changing ecosystems and land use, demographics, human behaviour, or adaptive capacity to affect many more people in unprecedented ways. In terms of water-related illnesses, climate change will cause an expanded growing season for algae and vibrio bacteria, which will increase the risk of exposure to waterborne pathogens and algal toxins that can cause a variety of illnesses.
Notably, climate change will also have widespread effects on food safety, nutrition, and distribution by disrupting the availability of food, increasing contamination and spoilage, and increasing the exposure of food to certain pathogens and toxins. Another finding of the study is that higher carbon dioxide concentrations can lower the levels of protein and essential minerals in many crops, including wheat, rice, and potatoes.
Finally, the report discusses the effects on mental health and well-being, which may be threatened by exposure to natural disasters, which can result in such mental health consequences as PTSD, depression, and general anxiety.
Now that the US has ratified the Paris Agreement, it is time to begin setting policies and regulations or choosing behaviors that will help the US to meet the target. While a contentious battle over the actual existence of climate change rages in the US, under the precautionary principle this report may alert Americans of the real dangers they face if climate change is allowed to spiral out of hand. The report specifically includes projections for future climate impacts under a series of different scenarios with increases in temperatures ranging from 1ºC to 4ºC. These models show the effects that will already happen even if the Paris Agreement is successful in preventing average global temperatures from rising more than 2ºC, and exemplify the disastrous effects of allowing an even greater increase in temperature.
Since this report is sponsored by several branches of the federal government and the US Global Change Research Program is an official government organization, the findings presented within are more likely to be accepted by the public and perceived as more legitimate than non-government research programs. The picture of the future in a warmer world is a catastrophic one, filled with disease, natural disasters, and death that to some level affect every US resident. Therefore, if this information is made available to the public, it is likely to encourage the people to call for action from both the government and private organizations to act at least within the prescriptions of the Paris Agreement, and perhaps towards even greater environmental protection.
Another important finding of this report is that the adverse effects of climate change will disproportionately target marginalized sectors of society: people in poverty, people of color, people with disabilities, and people with physical and mental health conditions. This finding makes the Paris Agreement more than simply an ecological imperative; now it becomes the moral responsibility of legislators and citizens to take strong actions to protect the most vulnerable members of the population.
If any American thinks the Paris Agreement to be irrelevant or climate change to be “someone else’s problem,” it is important for them to read this report, because it shows that climate change is everyone’s problem and that it requires direct, immediate, decisive action. Furthermore, this report demonstrates that climate change is not simply an environmental issue, but rather an economic, social, and public health problem that crosses all sectors of society. The hope, then, is that this report will spur people into action to meet the targets set by the Paris Agreement and to fight to stop the catastrophic effects of climate change.
The Global Change Research Program’s official website:
Link to the scientific assessment “The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States”: