Climate MattersOctober 20, 2021

Climate change and health

Climate change and health


  • Climate change presents a growing threat to human health, as confirmed by the newly released global scientific report from The Lancet

  • What does this mean for the American people? A new toolkit from Climate Central breaks down the climate-related health threats faced in different parts of the country. 

  • Climate-related health risks are not equally shared. Children, the elderly, low-income communities, and some communities of color face a greater share of risks.

  • The national response to climate change could have major benefits for health and equity.


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Climate change threatens the health and well-being of people around the world and health impacts are expected to worsen with additional warming, according to the sixth annual report from The Lancet.

Our warming climate exposes more people to hazardous conditions—including extreme heat, wildfire, drought, floods, and air pollution. These conditions can harm our health in many ways, including heat-related illness, lung and heart disease, infections carried by insects or polluted water, mental or physical trauma, and even death.

Americans are already feeling these effects. The Lancet’s global report is accompanied by a policy brief focused on the climate-related health risks of recent heatwaves, drought, and wildfires across the U.S.

Unequal heatwave health risk - American seniors and infants were exposed to far more heatwaves in 2020 compared to the 1986-2005 average, accounting for population increases.

Rural impacts of drought - The cascading health impacts of drought—from the spread of diseases like Valley Fever in dry conditions, to mental illness tied to economic losses in the agriculture sector—are acutely felt by farmworkers (nearly 65% of whom identify as Hispanic) and Indigenous communities in rural areas of the Western and Central U.S.

Far-reaching wildfire burden - Wildfire smoke contains airborne pollutants that can cause respiratory illness, especially in children and in people of color, who are exposed to systematically higher air pollution from all human-caused emissions sources. Wildfires have become longer and more intense in the west, but wildfire smoke can affect air quality and health from coast to coast. 

Climate-related health burdens are not shared equally across the U.S. Different regions face different types of climate-related health risks. Vulnerability to harmful conditions varies among populations (for example, by age group). And people of color and low-income communities experience systemically higher exposure to health-threatening climate conditions.

To understand how climate change is affecting health in your local area, Climate Central’s new toolkit provides resources on topics including:


Climate Central’s toolkit illustrates the many ways that climate change threatens health and worsens systemic inequities across the U.S. But the good news is that many climate solutions are health solutions

Burning fossil fuels not only warms the planet, it also produces PM2.5 pollution that is the largest environmental driver of human mortality, and disproportionately impacts people of color and low-income communities. 

Cutting emissions in line with the U.S. commitments under the Paris Agreement could therefore also have major benefits for air quality and health - as well as equity. If the U.S. meets its net-zero emissions targets by 2050, it could avoid up to 300,000 premature deaths and $3 trillion in damages related to air quality alone, according to analysis by researchers at Princeton University.


How is climate change affecting local health?
The National Integrated Heat Health Information System provides a Extreme Heat Vulnerability Map Tool that assesses local risk as a function of both heat exposure and social vulnerability. The CDC Heat & Health Tracker provides local heat and health information and regional rates of heat-related emergency department visits. This interactive map created by the Science Museum of Virginia and Esri shows formerly redlined neighborhoods in 108 cities and their exposure to urban heat. The American Public Health Association provides an overview of climate change as a health equity issue and includes guidance for public health departments. AirNow provides local, regional and national air quality data and information on recent trends. The EPA also provides county-level data on exceedance of health standards for a number of air pollutants including ozone. Search your city or zipcode at to find out if your area is experiencing drought.

Which local populations are most at risk from the health impacts of climate change?
This interactive map allows users to search and explore the CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index by county. 


The National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) maintains a database of contact information for drought experts by state. Contact your public health department to learn about local climate change and health equity issues and activities. 

The SciLine service, 500 Women Scientists or the press offices of local universities may be able to connect you with local scientists who have expertise on climate change and health. 


  • Cheryl L. Holder, MD
    Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity, and Community Initiatives and Associate Professor at Florida International University
    Dr. Holder is a specialist in internal medicine and HIV/AIDS. Her areas of interest include the nexus of climate change, health and equity.
    (954) 483-7685

  • Mark Mitchell, MD, MPH, FACPM
    Associate Professor, Climate Change, Energy & Environmental Health Equity, Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health at George Mason University
    Dr. Mitchell, a physician trained in environmental health and health policy, has worked in the public health sector for over two decades.

  • Tania Pacheco-Werner, PhD
    Co-Director of Central Valley Health Policy Institute at California State University, Fresno
    Dr. Pacheco-Werner is a health policy researcher and was appointed to the California Air Resources Board in December 2020. The focus of her research is on the effects of neighborhoods on health.
    *Available for interviews in English and Spanish

  • Renee Salas, MD, MPH, MS
    Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at Harvard Medical School
    Dr. Salas has served as the lead author of the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change U.S. Brief since 2018. Her clinical interests are focused on climate change and health.
    Media Contact: Liz Purchia -

  • Neha Pathak, MD, FACP 
    Dr. Pathak is a physician and a climate and health medical writer at WebMD/Medscape.

  • Bethany Carlos, MD MPH
    Community Pediatrician, Children's National Medical Center
    Dr. Carlos is a community pediatrician from South Carolina with a public health background focused on health equity, community health, and maternal and child health topics.