Climate change, primarily attributed to a rise in greenhouse gases produced by burning fossil fuels, strikes at the pillars of what keeps us healthy: adequate food, safe and sufficient fresh water, clean air, and freedom from infectious diseases that may intensify in the wake of natural catastrophes. In the coming decade, business and policy decisions about where and how we derive our energy will affect our lives for the next century and beyond. The Center’s Climate, Energy, and Health program strives to bring the best possible science about what is at stake for our health into these decisions.
Our energy is our health
Energy provides life-sustaining and health-promoting goods, from the electricity that powers much in our lives, to the fuel that transports us from one place to another. But not all energy is equal when it comes to what it means for our health. Each stage in the life cycle of fossil fuels—extraction, transport, processing, and combustion—carries multiple hazards for health and the environment.
Among these hazards are extreme weather events related to climate change. Droughts, heat waves, floods, and wildfires exacts a heavy health toll upon those who directly endure them, and upon people far away—a drought in the Midwest, for instance, threatens crops needed for food and fuel.
Air pollutants produced by burning fossil fuels are another cause for concern. In India alone, over 760,000 people die from air pollution each year and, worldwide, air pollution contributes to increased instances of diseases such as asthma and Alzheimer’s Disease.
As climate change contributes to rising sea levels, and as floods, droughts, and heat waves are becoming more common, entire communities are seeking refuge away from their homes. Apart from the direct effects of climate change, the effects of extreme weather can also contribute to increased food prices—which can intensify political instability, civil unrest, and violence.
A sustainable economy
Providing a just livelihood for as many people as possible has been a cause of humanity throughout this century. With more than one billion people living on less than $1.25 a day, and with wealth inequality growing steadily, achieving this goal will require intense and coordinated effort from leaders around the world. Climate change, through its effects on extreme weather and sea level rise, among others, has the potential to make this daunting task yet more challenging.