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What the Climate Apocalypse Means for Healthcare

Authored by Haylee Law

“The apocalypse will not be televised, it will be live streamed. The climate disaster is watching a series of shaky video footage until one day you are the person holding the phone, and live streaming the demise of our only home.” [1]

New Zealand climate activist Shaneel Lal shares this sobering message via Twitter during Cyclone Gabrielle, the country’s most intense and deadliest weather event. Referred to as an “unprecedented weather event,” [2] such headlines are actually becoming more common, with the cyclone coming less than two weeks after a flooding that was termed the “biggest climate event” in the nation’s history [3].

The increasing number of natural disasters and “once in a lifetime” weather events have begun to startle even the most ardent of climate deniers, and the United Nations Secretary António Guterres warns that our current habits leave us close to the “point of no return.” [4]. With the world at our fingertips, we watch from behind a screen as fires engulf Australia and California, as ski resorts in Europe close due to the lack of snow on the mountains, and as the increase in hurricanes and flash floods displace thousands, if not millions, living in island nations. 

Now, what does all of this mean for the future of health? Apart from the direct deaths caused by natural disasters, it’s easy to conclude that the impacts of these events are confined to being purely environmental. This, however, is not the case -- climate change is already, and will become increasingly disastrous for healthcare and impact everyone around the world, albeit in different ways. In addition to the short-term outcomes of adverse weather conditions preventing access to hospitals and health clinics and increasing hyper or hypothermia following heat waves or blizzards, long term impacts can be observed in even the most developed of healthcare systems. 

One outcome of concern is the mental health epidemic, which will only continue to deteriorate alongside climate change. In recent years, a number of publications have surfaced outlining the phenomenon of ‘climate anxiety,’ a form of anxiety directly related to worries regarding the effects of climate change and uncertainty about the future. While some brush off this phenomenon as being hyper-dramatic, it is a real concern, with surveys as recent as 2022 supporting that two-thirds of Americans experience some form of climate anxiety [5]. This concern is only elevated in the event of a natural disaster, with uncertainty, displacement, or financial loss causing significant negative impacts on mental health. Given the increased frequency of unprecedented weather events, the resulting impact on mental health could potentially be catastrophic [6]. 

In terms of physical health, we are once again likely to see disastrous outcomes in both low- and high-income countries. In high-income countries, where healthcare systems are mostly strained by the prevalence of chronic disease, an increase in natural disasters that displace communities, contaminate food and water, and exacerbate existing problems regarding accessibility to healthcare would cause these countries to face the dual burden of disease. The dual burden of disease, which is characterized by the the rise of both communicable and non-communicable diseases, was observed in high-income countries during the COVID-19 pandemic, where routine surgeries and research into issues such as cancer or obesity all had to be put to the side to focus on the most urgent task at hand. 

The dual burden of disease is already a health concern in low- and middle-income countries [7], with an increase in natural disasters and extreme weather events that will accompany climate change only exacerbating pre-existing inequities in healthcare around the world. While the most vulnerable communities will be primarily impacted, this will affect everyone. Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate, and high-income countries are just as susceptible to catastrophe at the hands of extreme weather events. 

Where does that leave us now, then? It leaves us in a precarious position where the entire future of healthcare is on the line, as are our lives. Past centuries have brought great advancements in healthcare and health technology, but climate change has the ability to completely derail this and send us back into the Stone Ages. Without aggressive climate reform in the near future, the disasters we see when we log on to Instagram or Tiktok each day will only become more common and more severe, until one day, we will open up our cameras to film the demise of our own homes too.

Works Cited 

  1. Lal, S. (2023, February 18). Shaneel Lal: We need radical change in the face of natural disasters. The New Zealand Herald.

  2. Sistek, S. (2023, February 15). Cyclone Gabrielle leaves 4 dead in New Zealand, ‘grave concerns’ about several more missing. Fox Weather.

  3. Graham-McLay, C. (2023, January 31). Auckland floods: city begins clean-up after ‘biggest climate event’ in New Zealand history. The Guardian.

  4. Reuters. (2022, November 7). U.N. Leader Warns Climate Change Is Close to the ‘Point of No Return’. The New York Times.

  5. Collier, S. (2022, June 13). If climate change keeps you up at night, here’s how to cope. Harvard Health Publishing - Harvard Medical School.

  6. Zhang, R et al. (2022). Impact of Natural Disasters on Mental Health: A Cross-Sectional Study Based on the 2014 China Family Panel Survey. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 19(5).

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