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  • Writer's pictureRyan Allen

Public health impacts of climate volatility

With various climate headlines in the news these days, I feel it's a relevant time to recognize the consequences of a rapidly shifting climate on individual, community, and global health. Certain ones may seem clear, such as a dramatic increase in temperatures due to increased atmospheric carbon creating a greenhouse effect, and a subsequent concern for acute events and deaths from extreme heat. Others, however, are more subtle.

For example, one often neglected result of increasing temperatures is significant disruption of sleep and circadian rhythms. In the past, we’ve spoken about the importance of quality sleep for cognitive function, cardiovascular health, exercise performance, etc., as well as the critical regulation of sleep cycles by temperature. Namely, we have mentioned that an ideal environment for sleep onset should be rather cool, since our core body temperature must drop to fall asleep and initiate the phase of the night rich in deep sleep. Rising temperatures could very much confuse our brains, disorienting us with regards to the time of day or night, when we should be asleep or awake, etc. Not only may temperature fluctuations disturb sleep onset, potentially contributing to greater presence of sleep onset insomnia, but they could also disrupt sleep stages. Increases in our core temperature coincide with the second half of the night as morning approaches, favoring rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep more than deep sleep. Both REM and deep sleep are crucial, and greatly missing out on one sleep stage is certainly problematic.

Another overlooked implication of climate volatility is the population’s resultant increase in susceptibility to diseases, both acutely and chronically. Those who live in California have undoubtedly already observed the now-annual occurrence of major wildfires all over the state, typically reaching a climax in the fall (having been a California resident my whole life, I do not recall consistent, predictable fires of this magnitude prior to ~5-7 years ago). With unprecedented wildfires, dust storms, upheaval of soil, etc., particulate air pollution is set to play an even larger role in allergies and asthma, as well as other respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Shifting climates worldwide will cause consequent changes in the ecological distribution of various species–such as mosquitoes, ticks, and other disease-carrying vectors–and pose new risks for outbreaks of diseases that were previously geographically restricted.

Finally, new circumstances posed by climate volatility will signify yet another social determinant rooted in systemic inequality. With rising sea levels, many flatlands at low altitude will be flooded, often home to low-income communities of color as a product of discriminatory practices like redlining. While these groups will frequently be displaced and millions will become “climate refugees,” there are also great concerns regarding food security from flooded, destroyed, or otherwise disrupted agricultural lands. It is possible that we could see major disruptions in the supply chain for produce and naturally grown products, leading to inaccessibility of good nutrition and an increased reliance on processed, preserved foods known to be detrimental to our health.

Over the next few years, it is imperative that we act with a clear eye on the future and the present, with signs of a fluctuating climate already evident. It is for these health implications and many more that I personally believe bold policy action is needed to first and foremost try to prevent such irreversible damage to the planet. That said, if we fail to combat the root cause of these climate consequences, we must plan to live with them. In either case, the time has undoubtedly come to stop putting this issue off. It is no longer an intangible, unconfirmed problem for future generations. Its manifestations are here now, in front of our eyes, and we have to respond.


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