Climate Change and Global Health Research at Pitt

Climate Change and Global Health Research at the University of Pittsburgh

By: Caroline Weiss

Climate Change and Health
The field of public health focuses on preventing disease and injury by working to ensure that the environment—including indoor and outdoor—are as healthy as possible. Climate change is directly related to the health of the environment; therefore, it will also impact public health. The consequences of climate change include rising temperatures, worsening pollution, increased flooding, sea-level rise and drought etc. Dr. Cynthia Salter, the Interim Director for the Center for Global Health, researches maternity care and shared that increased temperatures as well as food and water scarcity influence the increased likelihood of premature delivery. Women, children and the elderly are among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change on a global scale. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that approximately 150,000 deaths are attributable to climate change every year, which is predicted to double by 2030. 


Global Impacts
Global warming will move the comfort zone for many animals, such as mosquito and other biting insects, make them transmit disease faster, thus shifting the burden of disease around the world. According to the World Health Organization, climate change is predicted to cause approximately 250 thousand additional deaths, caused by malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea etc., annually between 2030 and 2050. Other environmental health problems associated with climate change—safe drinking water, clean air, secure shelter, and adequate food—will also be exacerbated. Figure 1 illustrates the myriad of effects that climate change has on human health.

Figure 1: Climate change effects on human health (From: “Climate Effects”)

Increasing extreme weather events are concerning for global health (“Climate Change”). For example, extreme temperatures contribute to respiratory and cardiovascular disease, especially among the elderly. In summer 2003, the heat wave that plagued Europe resulted in 70,000 deaths. Due to their aging populations, urbanization, and heat island effect, urban populations are especially susceptible to extreme heat. Extreme heat also raises the levels of ozone and other air pollutants that aggravate respiratory and cardiovascular disease, as well as increases levels of pollen and other allergens that exacerbate asthma (“Climate Change and Health”). In southern Africa, where warming is expected to be 2℃ higher than the global average, existing challenges such as HIV/AIDS, poverty, and food and water insecurity will compound the health effects of extreme temperatures (Wright et al. 579). Heat and rising methane emissions contribute to increased ground-level ozone formation, which is linked to several health issues, such as increases in premature death. By 2030, temperature and ozone increases are expected to cause significant increases in ozone-related premature deaths in some regions of the U.S. (Figure 2). Finally, air pollution is also intensified due to the rising number of wildfires, which produce smoke containing carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic chemicals (“Climate Effects”). 

Figure 3: Predicted changes in temperature, ozone, and premature deaths attributable to ozone in 2030 (From: “The Impacts”).

Natural disasters associated to climate change have tripled in frequency since the 1960s, resulting in over 60,000 deaths per year, especially in developing countries. Over half of the world’s population lives within 60 kilometers of the shorelines; Rising sea levels will destroy homes and medical facilities along the coast, forcing people to lose their homes and migrate. Additionally, variable precipitation patterns worldwide negatively impact fresh water supply, which in turn affects proper hygiene and increases the risk of diarrhea, which kills over 500,000 children under 5 years old per year. It will also cause drought and famine, which is already being a problem for non-developed countries. On the other hand, floods and high precipitation levels are also increasing in scale and intensity in some regions, which will contaminate drinking water, enhance the risk of water-borne diseases. Rising temperatures in Africa, for example, have also been linked to growing mosquito populations, possibly accelerating malaria outbreaks (Kasotia). Furthermore, floods can also aggravate asthma and allergies because of increased indoor mold growth. Most significantly, floods cause drownings, injuries, and obstruct the delivery of medical and health services. 

Malnutrition and undernutrition will also become more prevalent because of rising temperatures and variable precipitation. Currently, insufficient nutrition causes 3.1 million deaths per year, a staggering loss that will be further exacerbated by future global warming (“Climate Change and Health”). Increasing temperatures could lead to more severe food shortages in regions such as Africa and Asia (Kasotia). Agricultural disruption results in food insecurity and political unrest due to conflicts over scarce resources. Since climate change affects both food and national security, it often resulting in resource disputes, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has described climate change as “an act of aggression by the rich against the poor” (Kasotia).


Northeastern U.S. Impacts
Pennsylvanians has already under the influence of health consequences caused by climate change. The Northeast U.S. has had increasing heatwaves and resulting respiratory illness and disruptions to agriculture. Furthermore, not only pests and ticks, but Lyme disease is becoming more prevalent, which is harming forests and crops (Figure 3). Mosquitos carrying the West Nile Virus and ticks carrying Lyme disease have expanded their geographic ranges due to warmer than average temperatures, causing disease transmission in regions that were previously unaffected within the state. By 2090, the Northeast is expected to have an additional 490 cases of West Nile Virus per year. At highest risk for heat-related illnesses and death are those with chronic diseases, the elderly, kids, low-income populations, and outdoor workers. Finally, extreme heat is related to higher levels of aggression, which leads to increased assaults, murders, suicide, and mental health issues (“Northeast Climate”).

Figure 3: Increasing Lyme disease cases in the Northeast, 2001-2015 (From: “Northeast Climate”).

In addition, changing of precipitation pattern contributes to intense flooding and sewer overflows, which is an especially urgent concern in the city of Pittsburgh, where the combined sewer overflow system sends untreated sewage into the rivers during instances of significant rainfall. Therefore, floodwaters, raw sewage as well as agricultural waste and chemicals, will combine and carry harmful parasites, bacteria, and viruses. For example, Hurricane Sandy had caused the flow of 11 billion gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage into city streets, rivers, bays, and canals. In Maryland, increased precipitation is linked to a increasing risk of salmonella. Worsening and more common flood events can cause injury and illness as a direct result of global warming in the Northeast (“Northeast Climate”).


Mitigation and Solutions
Although health impacts of climate change on global and regional public health are already severe and the future outlook is grim, mitigation and education efforts are improving. The American Public Health Association (APHA) signed onto the Climate, Health, and Equity Policy Action Agenda alongside over 150 American health organizations to address the climate change health emergency. These organizations are prioritizing health equity in relation to the impacts of climate change and recognize that all people in the U.S. need protection from extreme weather, heat waves, increasing spread of insect-borne disease, and exacerbating air pollution (“Climate Change”).  Many public health professionals are embracing this cause and combating climate change is a priority of the APHA. At the University of Pittsburgh, the School of Public Health is incorporating more coursework on climate change and last year, the first Global Studies mini-course on Global Health and Climate Change was held. 

On a broader scale, a key tenet in global health is to prioritize care and protection of the most vulnerable. A reciprocal framework of climate action for health is valuable to conceptualize action steps moving forward in preventing worsening climate impacts on those who are especially susceptible. An example of climate action for health is the Paris Accord, which holds countries accountable to transitioning away from fossil fuels. Efforts to improve clean transportation as well as reduce air and water pollution are other ways that policies can take steps toward addressing climate change, which simultaneously produce health benefits. Health action for climate change such as increasing education about the health impacts of climate change and environmental justice is also necessary so that healthcare professionals recognize the connection between certain diseases and the fact that their patient is living near pollution in an underprivileged community.

The WHO promotes policies that reduce carbon emissions, such as cleaner energy systems and improved public transportation in order to mitigate the effects of climate change. Through working on partnerships within the U.N. system, the WHO is addressing health risks that result from global warming (“Climate Change and Health”), raising awareness of the threats of climate change to human health, and establishing a global research agenda. Their global efforts must be strengthened as climate change becomes a greater threat and supported on regional and level levels. Though continued education, political cooperation, and further involvement of health professionals, the health risks posed by climate change can be effectively addressed and alleviated.


Posted: April 9, 2021

Works Cited
"Climate Change." American Public Health Association,
"Climate Change and Health." World Health Organization, 1 Feb. 2018,
"Climate Effects on Health." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
"The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment.", U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2016,
Kasotia, Paritosh. The Health Effects of Global Warming: Developing Countries Are the Most Vulnerable. UN Chronicle,
"Northeast Climate and Health." American Public Health Association,
Wright, C. Y., et al. "Human Health Impacts in a Changing South African Climate." South African Medical Journal, vol. 104, no. 8, Aug. 2014, pp. 579-82, doi:10.7196/samj.8603.