Climate change poses serious threats to human health. Too often, the issue is framed as a risk for the distant future, but in fact it is here today. It is a reality for communities across the United States, and around the world, many of whom are already dealing with rising seas, longer and more intense heat waves, more powerful hurricanes, warmer winters, and other devastating impacts.
To be sure, climate-related work must address the future. Because carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases can stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, the choices we make today will affect the climate for centuries. By the same token, the release of greenhouse gases through human activities over the past two centuries has made some level of additional global warming inevitable. Since the turn of the 20th century, the average annual temperature across the contiguous United States increased by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1.0 degrees Celsius), and the country can expect to see it rise another 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit (1.4 degrees Celsius) over the next few decades, owing to past emissions. The evidence is clear that the climate is changing and will continue to change for at least the next century. Humans must learn to live with the effects of this change (adaptation), even as they pursue the essential objective of minimizing future warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation).
Climate change, however, does not affect all people and places equally. It is a global phenomenon, but its effects are local, shaped by weather patterns and geography. A person’s experience depends, in large part, on where she lives. That experience includes health risks. In addition to the well-understood dangers of death and injury posed by natural disasters, many health outcomes are directly or indirectly linked to environmental factors and, therefore, sensitive to changes in climate.