Climate Change and Public Health

Climate Change and Public Health

By Staff Contributor

There is broad scientific consensus that global temperatures are rising due to human activities.[1] And yet, while the negative environmental effects of climate change are recognized, its public health consequences have been largely ignored.

Climate change has an enormous impact on human health. Extreme heat can lead to heat-related illness and death. For example, the 1995 Chicago heat wave was responsible for nearly 800 deaths,[2] and the 2003 European heat wave killed more than 70,000.[3] Scientists believe both heat waves were made more likely by the human emission of greenhouse gases,[4] and that such heat waves will become more frequent, intense, and long-lived over the next century.[5] Similarly, wildfires, made more frequent and intense by drought, reduce air quality, increasing hospitalizations for respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses and the need for treatments for asthma and bronchitis.[6] Higher temperatures also lead to an increase in ground-level ozone, an air pollutant which is associated with many health problems, including diminished lung function and increased hospital admissions and emergency department visits for asthma.[7] Finally, warmer average temperatures may create a more hospitable environment for fleas, ticks, mosquitos, and other carriers of vector-borne diseases such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus.[8]

Unmitigated climate change is also likely to have a substantial impact on water quality. Salt from rising sea levels is leaching into the aquifers that many coastal communities rely on for drinking water.[9] Such communities are also unprepared for tidal flooding caused by rising sea levels and increasingly powerful storm surges.[10] Such flood waters can contain a variety of potentially harmful contaminates, including disease-causing bacteria, parasites, and viruses.[11]

Regulations to limit global climate change can provide immediate and significant public health benefits. For example, a study conducted by the EPA found that substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions could prevent 57,000 deaths from poor air quality per year,[12] and prevent 12,000 deaths from extreme heat in 49 cities per year.[13] Similarly, researchers at Duke University and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies estimate that 295,000 deaths from heart and lung disease could be prevented by 2030 and 36,000 every year thereafter if the United States reduces its emissions to meet the Paris Agreement’s stated goals.[14] Finally, a study led by researchers at Syracuse and Harvard Universities found that carbon emissions standards that were proposed by the EPA in 2014 for coal-fired power plants could prevent 3,550 deaths and more than 1,000 hospitalizations from air-pollution-related illness per year.[15]

The incoming Trump administration has a responsibility to protect the public health. Rather than attempting to abolish the EPA or repudiating the Paris Agreement, the Trump administration should promote policies which reduce greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Limiting climate change now will save lives and decrease future health care spending. If the Trump administration fails to do so, then it must be prepared to respond to and account for the serious adverse public health consequences of unmitigated climate change.


[1] W. R. L. Anderegg et al., Expert Credibility in Climate Change, 107(27) Proc. Nat’l Acad. Sci. 12107, 12107-12109 (2010); P. T. Doran & M. K. Zimmerman, Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” 90(3) Eos Transactions Am. Geophysical Union 22 (2009); N. Oreskes, Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, 306(5702) Science 1686 (2004).

[2] Jane E. Dematte et al., Near-Fatal Heat Stroke During the 1995 Heat Wave in Chicago, 129(3) Annals Internal Med. 173, 173–81 (1998).

[3] Jean-Marie Robine et al., Death Toll Exceeded 70,000 in Europe During the Summer of 2003, 331(2) Comptes Rendus Biologies 171, 171–78 (2008).

[4] Katharine Hayhoe, Scott Sheridan, Laurence Kalkstein & Scott Greene, Climate Change, Heat Waves, and Mortality Projections for Chicago, 36(2) J. Great Lakes Res. 65, 65–73 (2010); Peter A. Stott, D. A. Stone & M. R. Allen, Human Contribution to the European Heatwave of 2003, 432 Nature 610, 610–614 (2004).

[5] Hayhoe, supra note 3, at 65–73 (2010).

[6] Extreme Rainfall and Drought, Ctrs. for Disease Control & Prevention, (last visited Jan. 18, 2017).

[7] Climate Change Decreases the Quality of the Air We Breathe, Ctrs. for Disease Control & Prevention, (last visited Jan. 18, 2017).

[8] Climate Change Increases the Number and Geographic Range of Disease-Carrying Insects and Ticks, Ctrs. for Disease Control & Prevention, (last visited Jan. 18, 2017).

[9] Ohio State University, Climate Change Threatens Drinking Water, as Rising Sea Penetrates Coastal Aquifers, ScienceDaily (Nov. 7 2007), (last visited Jan. 18, 2017).

[10] Justin Gillis, Flooding of Coast, Caused by Global Warming, Has Already Begun, N.Y. Times (Sept. 3, 2016),

[11] Warmer Water and Flooding Increase the Risk of Illness and Injury, Ctrs. for Disease Control & Prevention, (last visited Jan. 18, 2017).

[12] Climate Action Benefits: Air Quality, U.S. Envtl. Prot. Agency, (last visited Jan. 18, 2017).

[13] Climate Action Benefits: Extreme Temperature, U.S. Envtl. Prot. Agency, (last visited Jan. 18, 2017).

[14] Drew T. Shindell, Yunha Lee & Greg Faluvegi, Climate and Health Impacts of US Emissions Reductions Consistent with 2 °C, 6 Nature Climate Change 503, 503–507 (2016).

[15] Charles T. Driscoll et al., US Power Plant Carbon Standards and Clean Air and Health Co-benefits,

5 Nature Climate Change 535, 535–540 (2015).