Californians expected to experience worsening health impacts due to climate change, says expert

A federal climate change assessment released in November warns of worsening health impacts due to climate change — effects which are already being seen in California.

In California, temperatures have already begun to climb and wildfires have intensified, a trend that is expected to continue unless meaningful action is taken, the report says.

The effects on health could be detrimental, said Arianne Teherani, a professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco. Not only are higher temperatures linked to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as preterm births, but wildfire smoke is known to exacerbate skin diseases and reproductive issues, Teherani said.

“We know that California has already experienced the worst air quality in the nation, and we know that hotter temperatures lead to more smog, which damages lungs and increases childhood asthma,” Teherani said.

Infectious diseases are also an increasing concern.

“We’re seeing things like Dengue fever, which we never saw in the North American continent show up here, and it’s not from travel,” Teherani said.

Between 2010 and 2019, heat was a primary cause for 600 deaths in California, and an additional 3,300 deaths listed heat as a contributing factor, according to the California Department of Public Health.

However, much remains unknown about potential health consequences, particularly when it comes to impacts on food supply and water quality, Teherani said.

“Climate change is unpredictable,” she said, “but there are a lot of downstream effects.”

According to the World Health Organization, between 2030 and 2050, globally climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from undernutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress alone.

As air conditioning units, backup electricity, or air filters become more pressing needs amid rising temperatures and dwindling air quality, this means that low-income households will face the largest health risks, Teherani said. Those who work outdoors, such as farm and construction workers will also be disproportionately impacted.

“It’s very much zip code-dependent, it’s very much population dependent,” Teherani said.

Despite the increasing risks, California has always been forward-thinking in its adaptations and responses to climate change, said Teherani, although more is needed when it comes to health-centered strategies and solutions.

“How do we educate the public in order to protect themselves?” Teherani said. “That’s also a really big challenge.”

Educating the public about climate change’s direct and indirect health impacts will be key, as is working with health care providers to provide protection and preparation,Teherani said.

“This is really more of an adaptive type of response, but we do need to adapt,” Teherani said. “We are in a place where things are not what they used to be.”

“Every individual has a gift that they bring into this world,” Teherani added. “How can they channel it toward protecting the environment and themselves?”