Climate change is an escalating threat to the health of people everywhere. As emergency medicine physicians practicing in Australia and the United States, we — and our colleagues around the world — already see the impacts of climate change on those we treat.
Will we be seeing you one day soon? Hopefully not. Yet an ever-growing number of us will face climate-related emergencies, such as flooding, fires, and extreme weather. And all of us can actively prepare to protect health when the need arises. Here’s what to know and do.
How is climate change affecting health?
As the planet warms, people are seeking emergency medical care for a range of climate-related health problems, such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke, asthma due to air pollution, and infectious diseases related to flooding and shifting biomes that prompt ticks, mosquitoes, and other pests to relocate. News headlines frequently spotlight physical and emotional trauma stemming from hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, and floods.
We care for people displaced from their homes and their communities by extreme weather events. Many suddenly lack access to their usual medical team members and pharmacies, sometimes for significant periods of time. The toll of extreme weather often lands hardest on people who are homeless, those with complex medical conditions, children, the elderly, people with disabilities, minoritized groups, and those who live in poorer communities.
On a recent 110º Fahrenheit day, for example, a woman came to an emergency department in Adelaide, Australia complaining of a headache, fatigue, and nausea, all symptoms of heat exhaustion. She told medical staff that she had just walked for two hours in the sun to obtain groceries, as she had no car or access to public transportation. While health advisories in the media that day had advised her to stay inside in air conditioning,