Climate Change and Environmental Health (AAFP Position Paper)

Anthropogenic climate change — the accelerated warming of the planet driven by human activities that include burning of fossil fuels and deforestation — is harming human health. Exposure to excess heat and particulate matter 2.5, or PM2.5, from air pollution and wildfire smoke increases hospitalizations and death from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Sea level rise and more frequent, intense extreme weather increase flood risks, leading to injuries, displacement and psychological trauma. As global temperatures increase, the emergence of pathogens and the geographic distribution of infectious diseases are changing. Greater water insecurity threatens food production and can lead to increased malnutrition. These impacts worsen existing health inequities and will affect people throughout their lifespans. The effects of climate change on intergenerational inequity are profound, with children bearing disproportionate impacts in the near- and long-term. For example, the World Health Organization estimates that children under 5 years of age bear approximately 90% of the global burden of disease attributable to climate change.6 Climate change also threatens health care delivery and access in communities as they contend with increasing disruptions to transportation, utilities, facilities and supply chain systems.

Globally, the health care sector is responsible for 4.6% of total greenhouse gas emissions. If health care were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter on the planet. In the United States, this sector contributes 8.5% to greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing these emissions will help slow global temperature rise in the future and bring immediate and long-term health co-benefits by improving air quality. Poor air quality remains an underappreciated public health burden. Family physicians play a critical role in preventing and mitigating the health impacts of anthropogenic climate change on their patients and communities.