The Effects of Climate Change on Vulnerable New Yorkers

Climate change affects all of us, but those with vulnerabilities are at higher risk of experiencing extreme health consequences. The changes that have already happened are impacting the health of New Yorkers, but there are things that we can do about it both individually and on a societal level.

I spoke with Vijay Limaye, PhD, an environmental epidemiologist and senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), whose work focuses on how climate change impacts human health. Dr. Limaye is also a member of the Human Health and Safety Technical Working Group for the current New York State Climate Impacts Assessment. The New York State Climate Impacts Assessment is a report that analyzes the scientific data around the state to determine the current effects of climate change, and to project likely future data. He told me:

“It’s pretty clear now through the public health evidence space that climate change will be a significant added stressor on top of already pretty significant health disparities out there when it comes to the burden of chronic illness. And we’re still, frankly, understanding the ways in which climate stressors will interact with people who are already contending with chronic disease.”

He explained that there are three categories to look at when it comes to the health effects of climate change: Exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity. Exposure is the amount of harms someone is subject to, such as how much polluted air they breathe. Exposure is correlated with negative health outcomes. Dr. Limaye told me:

“The burning of coal, oil, and gas contributes directly to chronic disease burdens, including in ways people don’t always appreciate. While lung disease comes to mind, things like heart disease are also tightly linked to exposure to air pollution, so air pollution can both cause and exacerbate existing heart disease.

The microscopic particles that are produced when we burn things like coal bypass our natural defense mechanisms of coughing or sneezing or swallowing. They enter deep into our lungs and enter the bloodstream from there.”

Exposure to pollution doesn’t just contribute to lung and heart disease, but also atherosclerosis, (hardening of the arteries) and heart attacks. While the pollution on its own can cause illnesses, those who already have health issues are at greater risk of ill health effects.1

The second category to look at is sensitivity, which involves an individual’s or community’s vulnerability to these effects. Obviously, people with disabilities or illnesses will be more susceptible to harmful particles in the air.

The final aspect of looking at climate change that Dr. Limaye discussed is called “adaptive capacity.” Adaptive capacity is the ability to access resources to improve health or prevent negative outcomes. For example, being able to afford air conditioning in extreme heat or being able to speak English and understand what the early warning coming from the state indicates.

Since those with chronic illnesses and other issues are at such high risk for negative health effects from climate change, it is especially important for New Yorkers to prioritize reducing the impacts of climate change.