Climate change and public health

Written by April Houston, MSW/MPH, graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis

Climate change is making headlines again after a winter where 145 million Americans experienced record warm temperatures and residents of traditionally chilly cities like Chicago and Washington, DC received far less snowfall than is typical for the months of January and February. In St. Louis, the temperature on the first day of spring (March 20) reached 86 degrees, much higher than the area average of 57.

Scientists warn that the frequency of extreme weather events such as drought, flooding, wildfires, and mega-storms will continue to increase as human activity leads to the warming of oceans, shifting of jetstreams, increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and melting of polar ice caps. Although certain American and European political leaders loudly deny the existence and/or importance of climate change, a recent World Meteorological Organization (WMO) statement asserts there is “no room for doubt.”

The year was marked by severe droughts that affected agricultural production and left people exposed to food insecurity in southern and eastern Africa and Central America. Hurricane Matthew caused significant damage in Haiti and the United States, while heavy rains and floods affected eastern and southern Asia. Coral bleaching and mortality were reported in many tropical waters, with important impacts on marine food chains, ecosystems and fisheries. (WMO, 2017)

These extreme climate events have significant impact on global population health, especially among vulnerable populations who disproportionately suffer from lack of access to clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food, and secure shelter.

Earth Day, an annual event to celebrate our planet and promote the importance of sustainable practices and environmental protection is April 22 this year. Earth Day festivals, talks, demonstrations, and other events have been organized In St. Louis and around the world, raising awareness of the importance of conservation and offering tangible ways to get involved. Here are just a few options:

  • The OneSTL Sustainability Summit on April 5 is focused on themes of biodiversity, buildings/land use, energy/emissions, food, materials, transportation, and water/green infrastructure. According to the official website: “Local governments, non-profits, elected officials, infrastructure providers, community leaders, academics, students, and other attendees will learn from regional and national leaders striving to set and achieve sustainability goals.”
  • The International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES) presents a showcase of Washington University’s environment, energy, and sustainability initiatives at EnviroSLAM on April 19.
  • Attendees of the St. Louis Earth Day Festival on April 22-23 can learn about sustainable products and services offered by local businesses and organizations, meet area non-profits, catch local musical acts and performance art, participate in a number of hands-on educational activities, and enjoy diverse cuisine featuring local, organic, vegetarian, and vegan options.

For more information on the science of climate change and its impact on human health, visit the U.S. Global Change Research Program website at