Climate and children
Graphic used with permission from Climate Central
Climate change threatens water, food, security, health, and children. Fortunately, there are effective solutions. Replacing fossil fuels with clean renewable energy creates both immediate and long-term benefits.
Earth’s atmosphere, like a blanket, slows the movement of heat from Earth to outer space. Human activities undermine Earth’s climate by adding greenhouse gases (GHG = carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide) to the atmosphere. Because of GHG emissions, the average atmospheric temperature at Earth’s surface increased by 1.8°Fahrenheit since 1900 and is rising by 0.3-0.4°F per decade.
Exposure to high temperatures (more than 95°F) for several hours without relief may cause loss of temperature regulation in humans (hyperthermia). As a result of several years in hot environments workers may also develop heat-related chronic kidney disease.
Global harvests of wheat, rice, and corn may decline as weather/climate disasters increase. Extreme heat reduces crop growth and pollination. There are droughts and wildfires in some areas when temperatures become hotter, but rain does not increase (US West, 5-fold increase in wildfires since 1965). In other areas, depending on prevailing winds, higher temperatures cause more water evaporation from tropical oceans and provoke more precipitation and flooding (US Midwest, 5-15% increase in precipitation 1986-2015 compared to 1900-1960). Droughts, floods, wildfires, and extreme heat will continue to escalate if GHG emissions persist.
Carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere dissolves into and reacts with water to form carbonic acid causing water to become more acidic: H2O + CO2 → H2CO3. In addition, as water warms, it holds less dissolved oxygen (O2) compromising breathing of sea organisms. Oceans and lakes may sustain fewer living things due to warming, acidification, and deoxygenation. Ocean phytoplankton produce about half the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere; we depend on the sea for oxygen and for food.
Toxic algae blooms occur when manure, sewage, or fertilizer run-off from land encounters unusually warm ocean or lake water causing rapid growth of microorganisms in water. Warming of oceans and lakes makes toxic blooms more likely. Toxic blooms, droughts, and floods compromise fresh water sources. Floods cause water sources to become contaminated by microorganisms from manure or human waste. In the U.S., floods are the most common cause of diarrheal outbreaks.
When water warms, the average distance between water molecules becomes greater (thermal expansion of water) increasing ocean volume. Melting of ice on land also increases the sea water volume. At the present time, sea level rises at the rate of 3-4 millimeters per year and this rate is increasing. As sea levels rise, coastal cities are threatened by flooding and salt contamination of their fresh water.
Warming of ocean water as a result of climate change makes tropical storms more powerful and with heavier rainfall. Tropical storms extract heat energy from water and convert this energy into wind. As heat and moisture move from the ocean to the atmosphere, tropical storms intensify.
Insects and ticks migrate towards the poles as temperatures rise. Anopheles mosquitoes that transmit malaria, and Aedes mosquitoes that transmit Dengue, are expanding their ranges. Ixodes ticks transmit Lyme disease (infection by bacteria of genus Borrelia) and Culex mosquitoes transmit West Nile encephalitis (virus disease). Both Lyme disease and West Nile encephalitis have migrated into Canada since 2000 as the climate warms.
Combustion of fossil fuels is a major source of air pollution. Oxides of nitrogen and inhaled particles of soot exacerbate asthma, infectious pneumonia (like coronavirus pneumonia), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart attack, and stroke. Approximately 4 million persons per year worldwide, mostly those with chronic lung and heart disease, die prematurely from outdoor air pollution.
Every year for the rest of your life will be one of the hottest on record. 2020 and 2016 are the hottest years ever recorded, but our children may remember them as cool. The goal of the Paris Agreement—limiting global warming to 3.6°F—may be humanity’s most important public health goal.