There’s less fiction than I thought in my upcoming novel about the health impact of climate change: yesterday the American Medical Association (AMA) declared climate change a public health crisis.
“The scientific evidence is clear – our patients are already facing adverse health effects associated with climate change, from heat-related injuries, vector-borne diseases and air pollution from wildfires, to worsening seasonal allergies and storm-related illness and injuries. Like the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis will disproportionately impact the health of historically marginalized communities,” said one board member.
The World Health Organization expects climate change to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050…and that’s just from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress. Numerous other health problems will rise along with the mercury. I learned about quite a few while researching my new cli-fi novel Beat In Her Blood, which imagines how desperate patients use bionic “upgrades” to manage climate-related ailments (with mixed success). Here’s just a few of the maladies we can look forward to if we don’t take climate action:
- Respiratory conditions. Warmer weather increases ground-level ozone (smog) and lengthens pollen seasons for allergy sufferers. Wildfires release particulate pollution, which can travel thousands of miles to lungs far from the disaster site.
- Vector-Borne Diseases. Warmer weather is expanding the geographic range of parasites like mosquitos and ticks, along with the diseases they carry. The lone star tick, traditionally found in the southern United States, arrived in Canada in 2019. Places where a species is established will see more extreme peak seasons: Singapore’s dengue fever cases are up almost 300% from this time last year. The classics are bad enough—Lyme disease, malaria, yellow and dengue fevers, to name just a few—but we can also expect the emergence of new illnesses like Zika virus.
- Renal disease. Kidneys play a unique role in regulating our body temperatures and electrolytes. As such, they take a hard hit during heat waves (which are becoming more frequent: one recent study projects that the annual number of days with a heat index above 105 degrees F will triple in the U.S. by mid-century). Heatstroke and dehydration have been linked to kidney disease.
- Mental Health. The psychological effects of climate change go beyond “eco-grief”. Anecdotal evidence suggests a positive correlation between warmer temperatures and aggressive behavior. A study from Australia associated heat waves with increased rates of admissions for mental disorders. Emotional consequences of climate change, such as the economic impact of crop failures or the stress of losing one’s home after a disaster, will also likely increase anxiety and even suicides.
All these conditions play dark supporting roles in Beat in Her Blood; even as the characters hunt a murder across near-future Baltimore, climate change remains the ultimate antagonist. That part is distressingly non-fictional. I applaud the AMA for adding its authority to the call for climate action, before the health crisis escalates for patients and providers alike.