Human Health Faces Increasing Threats From the Environment We Live In

Nisa PatelArticle, Blog, News

By Mira Wang, Communications Support, GBCHealth 


One of the highlights of the UN General Assembly meeting last week was the ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement by 61 nations. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared: “I am confident that, by the time I leave office, the Paris Agreement will have entered into force. This will be a major achievement for multilateralism.” With news that the European Union and India plan to sign in the coming weeks, the agreement will surpass both thresholds required for it to come into effect.

From a climate standpoint, threats to population health can be understood as having both short-term and long-term effects. In the short term, extreme weather events have increased in frequency and intensity, causing death and disability, debilitating infrastructure and contribute to the spread of infectious disease. In the long term, adverse environmental effects can increase rates of chronic health conditions and affect the food and production systems we rely on. According to the Brookings Institution, climate change could reduce global GDP by over 20 percent by 2100. Stemming this decline and counteracting the accelerating damage from climate change will require the collective action of civil, public and private sectors.

In the short term, natural disasters increasingly threaten our water, food, electricity and health care infrastructure. Costly catastrophes force individuals, governments and businesses to adapt to mitigate their immediate effects. According to the Red Cross, relief for the Louisiana flood in the United States in August will cost at least $30 million. Thirteen people died, more than 60,000 homes were damaged or ruined, and thousands of homeowners were displaced. In many low-resource or underprepared areas, natural disasters can contaminate drinking water, compromise electricity systems and overburden health services with injured and sick patients. As natural disasters increase in intensity and frequency, the toll to human health is likely to rise correspondingly.

However, it is not only the media-grabbing natural disasters that have negative impacts on health. With gradually warming temperatures, infectious disease vectors, from mosquitos to ticks, that previously survived year-round in only tropical climates have begun to spread northward, providing a greater risk of infection. For example, it was believed that the Aedis aegypti mosquito—the vector for Zika, dengue and yellow fever—couldn’t survive year-round anywhere north of South Carolina. Now, the mosquitos bite, reproduce and live year-round in Washington D.C., 500 miles to the north. Warming temperatures widen the territory of disease vectors and can pose a greater risk of infection to populations.

In the long term, the compounding effects of warming temperatures also can escalate the incidence of heat- or air quality-related conditions. Rates of heat stroke, dehydration, asthma attacks and other cardiovascular and respiratory disease could increase in response to rising temperatures and ground-level ozone. The most at-risk populations are also some of the most marginalized: low-income households, outdoor workers, homeless people, and subsistence farmers. Their risk is two-fold—not only do they spend more time outside and face greater risk of contracting these environmental diseases, but they frequently lack access to mitigating resources like air-conditioning or adequate healthcare to deal with ensuing health problems.

Changes in climate are also affecting the food production systems that individuals, governments and businesses rely on. According to a 2015 McKinsey report, businesses active along the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico will face an 11 to 27 percent increase in the cost of dealing with coastal storms in the next 15 years—an additional $3 to $7 billion in average annual damage. Meanwhile, states in the Midwest, Southeast and the lower Great Plains will experience significant losses in crop yields for major commodities, including corn, soy, wheat and cotton, with reverberating effects in many consumer goods markets.

Businesses can take action to lessen the effects of climate change, as global citizens and advocates of employee health. Specific steps can be taken to reduce carbon footprints and other environmental effects. Throughout the supply chain, companies can switch to post-consumer waste packaging, reduce plastic packaging and identify and eliminate inefficient energy practices. In the workplace, businesses can switch to energy-efficient appliances or biodegradable cleaners. To instill healthy habits in their employees all organizations can invest in safe facilities, clean air and water supply to ensure the wellbeing of their workers. Emergency preparedness plans, in the event of floods, hurricanes, or other disasters, should be formalized to better protect employees from natural disasters.

As influencers of public opinion and of their peers, companies can commit to undertaking any number of certification processes to highlight their environmentally-friendly policies. Certified B corporations, including Ben & Jerry’s, have been recognized for their efforts to set industry-wide social and environmental standards, implementing recycling, energy efficiency and waste reduction measures, and investing in renewable energy. Through these tactics, the private sector can lead by example and encourage others to take action.

With progress at the United Nations this week on the Global Climate Agreement, businesses have the opportunity to commit to building a more sustainable world. Partnerships among governments, NGOs, businesses and communities are needed to combat the root causes of climate change, ameliorate the health effects of at-risk populations and provide policy guidance for governments to build a more sustainable future.

The world needs action—and business can lead the way. An investment in the environment is an investment in human health, and a sustainable world for generations to come. Short-term and long-term effects in the form of natural disasters, warming temperatures and pollution threaten our health, air, food and water systems. Through concerted efforts to decrease carbon footprints, improve workplace conditions, and lead partnerships with governments, NGOs and communities, can contribute greatly to positive change.

Nisa PatelHuman Health Faces Increasing Threats From the Environment We Live In