As world leaders gather on Monday for the Climate Action Summit at the UN General Assembly, it is sadly clear that the prospect of rising global temperatures and sea levels has failed to generate a sufficient sense of urgency around climate change. What might spur leaders to action, if it were better understood, is the enormous threat that climate change already poses to human health.
Climate change exacerbates chronic and contagious disease, worsens food and water shortages, increases the risk of pandemics, and aggravates mass displacement. The broad environmental effects of climate change have long been discussed as long-term risks; what’s clear now is that the health effects are worse than anticipated—and that they’re already being felt.
The dangerous health effects of climate change begin with the emissions that cause it. Black carbon, methane, and nitrogen oxides are powerful drivers of global warming, and, along with other air pollutants such as carbon monoxide and ozone, they are responsible for over seven million deaths each year, about one in eight worldwide. The problem extends beyond cities with famously poor air quality, such as New Delhi, Beijing, and São Paulo. Ninety percent of the world’s urban dwellers breathe air containing unsafe pollution levels, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The dangers start at the beginning of life. Toxic pollutants cross the placenta, increasing the risk of preterm birth and low birth weight, which can cause lifelong damage to multiple organ systems. Children breathe more rapidly than adults do, so they absorb more pollutants at a time when their developing organs are more vulnerable. As a result, air pollution causes an estimated 600,000 deaths each year in children under five, mostly from pneumonia. There is also emerging evidence that air pollution compromises children’s cognitive development and can increase their risk of behavioral disorders.
In adults, pollution contributes to a wide range of respiratory and circulatory diseases, and may accelerate cognitive decline in seniors. Most air-pollution-related deaths are due
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