To many people in the United States, climate change is elusive. We hear predictions of what the world will be like in 20 or 30 years. We see pictures of polar bears and ice caps that are thousands of miles of away. Reports mention particles too small to see and changes in temperature that may sound insignificant. Through this lens, it is no wonder that climate change can seem distant and impersonal.
But World Environmental Health Day reminds us that nothing is more urgent or more personal than climate change. This year’s theme, “Climate Change Challenges: Time for Global Environmental Health to Act in Unison” emphasizes three things. First, climate change is not a polar bear-only problem. From increased frequency and severity of natural disasters to shifting coastlines caused by rising sea levels to changes in agricultural productivity, climate change affects millions of people around the world and eventually will affect us all.
This year’s theme also reminds us that the consequences of climate change impacts are not purely economic and social. Climate change is a health problem. However, not everyone suffers it equally. Countries that have emitted the highest amounts of greenhouse gases will likely feel these effects least, while those that emit the least are most vulnerable to the drastic changes that greenhouse gas emission cause.
Higher temperatures in the Middle East will make it dangerous to be outside. As temperatures rise in the tropics, mosquitos will migrate to higher elevations, introducing malaria risk for previously unaffected populations. Rising global temperatures strain people who have non-communicable diseases like heart disease and diabetes. Additionally, the increase of carbon dioxide is lowering the nutritional value of certain crops like wheat and rice, which will lead to deficiencies of important nutrients like zinc, iron, and protein. These changes will make certain parts of the world less comfortable or downright inhospitable, displacing people who live there. And migration comes a whole host of health and other human rights concerns.
Recently, young people have made it clear that this is not acceptable. Around the world, millions of schoolchildren have taken time from class and poured into the streets for a climate strike. This powerful movement is led by the people who will bear the brunt of climate change, and they are demanding action from the adults who have allowed the problem to become so dire. Their coordinated efforts and clear message tie into the last point of this year’s World Environmental Health Day theme: immediate, organized action.
This year’s theme reminds us that we are not helpless and still have the opportunity—and responsibility—to mitigate the effects of climate change. However, we cannot let any more time pass without taking bold action. It will not be easy to make the kind of changes that are needed, but such changes will save lives. We must remember that climate change is an urgent, personal, health issue. On World Environmental Health Day and every day, we must act individually and in unison.