Understanding Climate Change

"It is possible to renew the energy economy and stem the tide of climate change."

— Sabrina McCormick, Ph.D., M.A., Milken Institute School of Public Health associate professor at the George Washington University

Climate change is a reality, but disastrous storms and compromised health are not forgone conclusions. You can make a difference. There are simple choices and changes, from large to small, expensive to free, that can meaningfully reduce carbon emissions that are insulating and warming our planet.

"It can be overwhelming. You feel like you have to change every aspect of your life, but I like to tell folks to take it bit by bit," said associate professor Peter LaPuma, Ph.D., P.E., C.I.H., of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University.

People and Climate Change

Earth has experienced many cycles of warming and cooling across the millennia, but there has been an unprecedented spike in temperature over the past 100 years.1 This planetary shift affects the long-term weather patterns that we see in today's global climate.

“Everyone has heard of climate change but now we are all experiencing the horrific consequences with much more intense storms, droughts, wildfires and heat waves,” LaPuma said. “We need a moonshot mentality of global action now or these extreme events will only get much worse.”

Annual rise in temperature

The change in global surface temperature (relative to 1951-1980 average temperatures) has continued to increase steadily over the past several decades.

Matching the rise in temperature is the level of carbon dioxide gas present in our atmosphere.2 These elements are paired for a reason: Carbon dioxide, released from the burning of fossil fuels as well as natural phenomena, allows the sun's light to penetrate the atmosphere but traps its heat from escaping. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere acts like the glass in a greenhouse, giving global warming the alternate name of the "greenhouse effect."

Increase in CO2

NASA and others in the scientific community have documented a steady rise in CO2 emissions during the last half-century.

We have near-global recognition that our carbon output is a direct cause of global climate change. Strategies going forward will certainly include adaptations to warming temperatures and rising seas, but undoing the harm we have already caused is still very much within humanity's reach.

"Good analysis shows that it is possible to renew the energy economy and stem the tide of climate change," said Milken Institute School of Public Health associate professor Sabrina McCormick, Ph.D., M.A.

While individual actions to reduce carbon emissions can help, global climate change can only be slowed with the commitment and teamwork of nations. The United States has taken some steps toward reducing climate change. Some recent policies and actions include:

  • New greenhouse gas reduction targets: The United States is aiming to cut 2005 levels of greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 on the way to net-zero emissions by 2050. Part of this plan includes job creation in the green energy sector.3
  • The Green New Deal: The Green New Deal4 is a sweeping proposal first introduced to Congress in 2019 that aims to address all aspects of climate change. The nonbinding resolution would encourage the United States to drastically cut carbon emissions, move away from fossil-fuel use and create clean-energy jobs, among other goals.
  • The Paris Agreement: The international treaty, formed in 2015, puts the United States and other members on a path toward net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.5

Which Habits Fit Your Life?

  • Air drying clothes
  • Choosing clean energy from your power provider
  • Installing efficient windows
  • Using warm heat instead of hot for dryers
  • Composting
  • Using reusable bags
  • Installing solar panels
  • Cutting out meat
  • Becoming vegetarian
  • Becoming vegan
  • Reducing use of cars
  • Installing LED light bulbs
  • Sorting your recyclables
  • Buying goods second-hand
  • Bundling online purchases
  • Researching companies’ sustainability practices
  • Renting clothes
  • Buying fewer, high-quality clothing pieces
  • Avoiding bracket shopping
  • Using sustainable menstrual products
  • Repairing clothes
  • Avoiding foods with a lot of packaging
  • Buying reusable water bottles and food storage containers
  • Planting a garden
  • Supporting restaurants that use local ingredients
  • Reducing food waste
  • Turning off lights
  • Unplugging idle electric devices
  • Driving an electric or hybrid vehicle
  • Making sure your tires are inflated
  • Using the correct fuel grade and oil weight for cars
  • Walking or biking short distances
  • Taking public transportation or carpooling
  • Flying less
  • Vacationing close to home
  • Keeping the same linens at hotels
  • Staying on trails outdoors
  • Disposing trash properly during outdoor recreation
  • Booking tours with local operators
  • Taking shorter showers
  • Conserving water
  • Using fewer paper towels and napkins
  • Cutting out straws and plastic utensils
  • Preserving food
  • Eating mindfully
  • Improving house insulation
  • Planting trees
  • Making your home more airtight
  • Regulating thermostat temperature
  • Washing clothes in cold water
  • Buying fresh, local food
  • Building a LEED-certified home
  • Investing in EPA-certified appliances
  • Using power strips
  • Using green cleaning products
  • Installing a low-flush toilet
  • Upgrading your showerhead
  • Buying organic textiles

Often, people feel helpless about where to start or are skeptical a single person can make a difference. McCormick regularly talks to her classes about the importance of broad cooperation in reducing emissions.

"What we call collective efficacy is really important," she said. "When people believe that their contribution was accompanied by the contributions of many other people, they feel more confident that their contribution or their efforts will make a difference."

Scientists agree there is time for change, but time is short. An aggressive effort to cut carbon emissions and stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide is key to avoiding the harshest changes global warming could bring.

Based on the most recent research, there are three high-impact changes individuals can make to decrease their carbon footprint:

Living Car Free

Living Car Free

Avoiding Air Travel

Avoiding Air Travel

Eating a plant-based diet

Eating a Plant-Based Diet

Each one of these actions could decrease carbon emissions by 5 percent.6 With some commitment to a few lifestyle changes, there can be a sizeable mitigation in the rapid deterioration of Earth's climate.

Climate Change and Health

Climate change has many damaging effects on human health.7,8 It results in:

  • Heat-related illnesses
  • Cancer from exposure to the sun's radiation
  • Respiratory problems because of poor air quality
  • Compromised irrigation systems, which affect farmland and water sanitation
  • Nutrition deficits due to crop failures
  • Vector-borne illnesses
  • Environmental disasters and population displacement

Led by informed professionals in the health workforce, each one of these challenges can be addressed. Clinicians can provide health education that advises using high SPF sunscreen to protect against the sun’s rays. Air quality warnings serve to alert those with lung and cardiovascular disorders to stay indoors. Vector-borne illnesses are monitored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for scope and impact, and clinicians can educate patients on the importance of preventing and treating insect bites.

A stronger public health infrastructure can help prepare the public for health risks associated with climate change.

Climate Change and Public Health Policy

Large-scale environmental hazards are best managed by protective policies that reduce risks associated with natural disasters. Building codes, systems of levees and dams, good water management, evacuation routes and a prepared public all contribute to minimizing damage and encouraging quick recovery.

A stronger public health infrastructure can help prepare the public for health risks associated with climate change. Even as people work to combat the worst effects of climate change, they must also prepare and adapt to the changes already in motion. Educating the health workforce with the most current science and preventive health strategies empowers their leadership in facing the present and future health challenges of global climate change.

Public health measures should be considered as part of climate change planning.9 And on the flipside, policymakers can also integrate a climate lens within health policy, including assessing health care access, quality and cost.10

“Applying a climate lens means assessing climate change-driven health risks and integrating them into policies and other actions to improve the nation’s health,” according to HealthAffairs. “This lens can be applied to rethinking how to take a more population-based approach to health care delivery, prioritize health care system decarbonization and resilience, adapt data infrastructure, develop a climate-ready workforce, and pay for care.”11

The CDC is among the organizations pushing for health policy action amid climate change. Some of the CDC’s climate and health initiatives include tracking data on environmental conditions and disease related to climate change, partnering with national and international agencies and organizations to address the global health threats of a warming planet, and supporting state and local health departments in preparing to combat the health effects of climate change.12

Becoming an Informed, Eco-friendly Citizen

To learn more about climate change and what you can do to combat it, explore the news sources, podcasts, films and organizations below.

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