What are the most serious health risks of climate change?

Neil Ever Osborne and M.A. Jacquemain

Climate and health analysis considers how climate change will adversely affect the health of Canadians.

Human-caused climate change is expected to impact many aspects of our health from access to clean drinking water and food security to exposure to air pollution and fatal heat waves.

Based on the contributions from more than 80 experts, a comprehensive study released in 2022 took a deep dive into areas of concern like natural hazards, mental health, and vulnerable populations in Canada.

The analysis echoes similar findings laid out by the CDC and the WHO, outlining how such impacts of climate change as “rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, extreme weather, droughts, and rising sea levels” will have down-system effects on everyone around the world.

“In the near term the largest public health concerns related to climate change in Canada are wildfire smoke, extreme heat, worsened air pollution, and increased airborne allergens,” Michael Bauer, a professor in the University of British Columbia’s school of population and public health, told The Weather Network (TWN).

READ MORE: 90% of humans are exposed to air pollution that exceeds safety guidelines

Brauer noted that longer term effects like “increasingly severe extreme weather events leading to flooding and sea level rise” could impact “water quality and availability as well as food security.”

Dylan Clark, the senior adaptation researcher with the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices (CICC), largely agreed with these prognostications.

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Traffic is a significant source of greenhouse gases in urban regions. (buzbuzzer/ E+/ Getty Images)

Traffic is a significant source of greenhouse gases in urban regions. (buzbuzzer/ E+/Getty Images)

“Canadians have finally started to recognize that climate change is not just a long-term risk but an immediate threat to human health,” Clark told TWN.

“We saw this, tragically, in the (roughly 600) lives lost from B.C.’s extreme heat (in 2021), and in the impact of more frequent and extreme wildfires on people’s respiratory health.”

READ MORE: Does breathing in wildfire smoke mean lung issues for life?

The report determined, for example, that upwards of “2,500 premature deaths due to long-term exposure per year were attributable to fine particulate matter from wildfires.”

The report also details the growing risk of infectious diseases — in particular zoonotic diseases and tick-borne Lyme disease, which has increased dramatically over the last decade to more than 2,000 cases annually in Canada.

READ MORE: Increased flooding events could bring more tropical diseases to North America

“There is a likelihood for warmer temperatures to increase the range of vector-borne diseases such as West Nile Virus,” Brauer agreed.

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Weather was very much at the heart of the report. It noted that “projected increases in the frequency and severity of intense precipitation events, droughts, extreme heat, wildfires, and storms will directly affect health by causing more illness, injuries, and deaths without greater adaptation efforts.”

WATCH BELOW: Anxiety skyrockets as climate extremes directly impact Canadians

The analysis was also done to determine the mental health impacts of climate change, findings that include increased likelihood of mental health stressors, PTSD, and even suicidal ideation.

The report identifies the populations most vulnerable to the risks posed by climate change include seniors, individuals with chronic health conditions, those with low incomes, children, and Indigenous populations.

READ MORE: This report outlines how climate change will impact Indigenous peoples’ health in Canada

The expansiveness of the report underscores how serious and widespread the health impacts of climate change are predicted to be. Alterations to the global climate that impact regional weather patterns, ecosystems, and communities will put a strain on food, water, and public health systems.

The effects will be felt most directly in human health outcomes. Yet the analysis promises to be a template for the government to “take action to reduce risks as well as to empower individuals to protect themselves and their loved ones.”

READ MORE: Here are the economic costs of climate change health impacts

Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault stated what’s at stake in a related press release: “The costly impacts of climate change are driving changes across society — from how we build our communities, to how global markets operate, how we travel, and how we protect public health.”

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“This report makes abundantly clear the rising costs of climate change on our health, our environment, and our economy.”

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