We teach our children to treat others as they want to be treated, but what about the world around them? As the dominant force driving ecological change, the damage we do to natural life-support systems is eventually visited upon us, perhaps most dramatically in our health. Stanford researchers are exploring how climate change fueled by human-caused emissions is altering the burden of disease, hunger, thirst and mental illness around the world. Their sobering discoveries open a window into understanding, predicting and mitigating these changes.
“The next great health threat has already emerged,” said Paul Auerbach, a professor emeritus of emergency medicine and co-author of the book Enviromedics: The Impact of Climate Change on Human Health. “It’s climate change.”
Climate change’s health impacts are and will be broad. Related drivers such as extreme weather and sea level rise are already contributing to a range of ills from outbreaks of waterborne disease and heat-related illness to respiratory allergies and asthma. Scientists are increasingly able to connect climate change to events such as civil conflict and forced migration that result in injury, mental illness and death on a large scale. The youngest, oldest and poorest among us stand to lose the most.
Pollution from human-caused fossil fuel emissions presents a particularly stark picture. Globally, long-term exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution is associated with about 7 million deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization. Children under age 5 in lower-income countries are more than 60 times as likely to die from exposure to air pollution as children in high-income countries, according to the World Bank. Regardless of age, people exposed to polluted air for long periods of time are more likely to suffer from diseases such as stroke, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“Human-driven changes to the natural world will likely drive the majority of the global burden of disease and other health impacts over the coming century,” said Susanne Sokolow, a senior research scientist at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and co-director of Stanford’s Program for Disease Ecology, Health and the Environment, which brings together researchers in Planetary Health and One Health fields to discover ecological solutions to disease. “We won’t have another chance to get this right.”
Recently, Stanford Medicine magazine hosted a series of stories on global health, and here we expand on ways in which our own health relies on the health of the planet. Navigate to stories in the series via the links at the left (on desktop computers) or above (on mobile devices).
(Navigate to any story in the "Climate of health" series via the column on the left side of this page.)