Why is climate change education important to our health?

“Even if climate change isn’t real [but we know it is], aren’t the benefits of cleaner air, water and land worth all the effort put towards cleaner energy, reduced resource use and all general “green” practices?”  I can’t remember where I first heard this, or the exact quote, but it makes one think.  As much as this concern is about nature and ecology, it also has direct and indirect consequences on human health, as well.


Let me count the ways…

The following resources are just a few that describe how climate change will affect our health, and the fourth contains interviews with people around the world about how the changing climate has affected them.

Environmental Protection Agency

The Interagency Working Group on Climate Change and Health

World Health Organization and World Meteorological Organization (Especially if you like maps and charts)

Practical Action (Global climate change interviews)

In summary, the above links break down into direct and indirect consequences of climate change, including diseases (malaria and cholera), extreme weather events (storms and heat waves), pollution of air and water (ground level ozone), and food security.

The World Health Organization and World Meteorological Organizations co-published a report on how change will affect human health.
The World Health Organization and World Meteorological Organization co-published a report on how climate change will affect human health.


Where does it fit?

At great risk of contradicting what I wrote in a previous post, Rolling your eyes at climate change education, I see this as a subject that fits well into a number of standard middle school (ages 11-14) and high school (ages 14-18) level classes — in addition to earth science, health and biology seem obvious fits.  However, any climate change education in formal or informal environments needs to be to the point, and not overbearing, as many students are already exposed to climate change on a regular basis.  For teachers it may be too much to continue adding content to an already bursting-at-the-seems curriculum, so don’t be surprised if you don’t find this topic in every district.

If it doesn’t make its way into school, where else does it fit?  As hot a topic as it is, news outlets provide pieces here and there, as do educational networks such as Discovery Channel or National Geographic, with entire specials dedicated to climate change.  It’s hard to hide from climate change education, formally or informally.


Why do we learn about climate change?

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if climate change education is making a difference.  Greenhouse gas emissions keep rising despite advances in technology, and we regularly witness, and sometimes participate in, practices that are not the most environmentally friendly.

Albeit many people do make conscious decisions to mitigate climate change in a small, personal way, but if not to “fix” climate change, are we only learning about how it will affect our health in order to prepare for the changes ahead?  Malaria in new areas, more super-storms, drought and heat waves, floods, food security threats – just a sample of what is in store for us in the future.  Scientists are predicting which areas and populations will be greatest affected in the near and far off future.  The most well known, and one of the earliest, of these predictions is probably forecasting which cities or states are going to become underwater with sea level rise.  And most people are at least somewhat aware of more frequent heat waves.

The maps show the number of days per year with peak temperatures above 90°F from 1961 to 1979 and projected for 2080 to 2099. By 2100, north Florida is projected to experience more than 165 days per year (over six months) over 90°F. Source: USGCRP (2009)
The maps show the number of days per year with peak temperatures above 90°F from 1961 to 1979 and projected for 2080 to 2099. By 2100, north Florida is projected to experience more than 165 days per year (over six months) over 90°F.  Source: USGCRP (2009)


The fruit of our efforts is still to come

The bright side is knowing that climate change education as we know it is less than 10 years old.  I never learned about it in school (I graduated high school in 2000) and I would presume that nearly all adults about my age and older did not grow up with climate change as part of their upbringing – and we’re the ones driving the world right now.  In another 15 or 25 years I would expect that those becoming young adults and professionals will finally be able to act upon all of their years of climate education and realize that their actions have consequences, whether they affect them directly or indirectly.  Then we will see if we are only learning about climate change to prepare, or to “fix” it, too.


Author: Mike Klymkowsky

I am a Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I earned a bachelors degree in biophysics from Penn State then moved to California and earned a Ph.D. from CalTech (working for a time at UCSF and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic). I was a Muscular Dystrophy Association post-doctoral fellow at University College London and the Rockefeller University before moving to Boulder. My research has involved a number of topics, including neurotransmitter receptor structure, cytoskeletal organization and ciliary function, neural crest formation, and signaling systems in the context of the clawed frog Xenopus laevis as well as biology education research, leading to the development of the Biological Concepts Instrument (BCI), a suite of virtuallaboratory activities, and biofundamentals, a re-designed introductory molecular biology course. I have a close collaboration with Melanie Cooper (@Michigan State) that has resulted in transformed (and demonstrably effective and engaging) course materials in general and organic chemistry known as CLUE: Chemistry, Life, the Universe & Everything. I was in the first class of Pew Biomedical Scholars and am a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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