Climate change represents a growing threat to human well-being — through heat waves, extreme weather events, expanding ranges for tropical diseases, shortfalls in nutrition due to effects on agriculture, and more. For these dog days of August, YCC offers a bookshelf of books and reports on climate change and public health.

Descriptions have been drawn from copy provided by their publishers.

Six Books

Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, updated edition, by Eric Klinenberg (University of Chicago Press 1995, 2016, 305 pages, $18.00 paperback)

On Thursday, July 13, 1995, Chicagoans awoke to a blistering day in which the temperature would reach 106 degrees. When the heat wave broke a week later, city streets had buckled, the records for electrical use were shattered, and power grids had failed, leaving residents without electricity for up to two days. And by July 20, over seven hundred people had perished. In Heat Wave, Eric Klinenberg takes us inside the anatomy of the metropolis to conduct what he calls a “social autopsy,” examining the social, political, and institutional organs of the city that made this urban disaster so much worse than it ought to have been. For the second edition, Klinenberg has added a new preface showing how climate change has made extreme weather events in urban centers a major challenge for cities and nations across our planet, one that will require commitment to climate-proofing changes to infrastructure rather than just relief responses.

Changing Planet, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do About It, by Paul R. Epstein, MD, and Dan Ferber (University of California Press 2011, 368 pages, $26.95 paperback)

Brilliantly connecting stories of real people with cutting-edge scientific and medical information, Changing Planet, Changing Health brings us to places like Mozambique, Honduras, and the United States for an eye-opening on-the-ground investigation of how climate change is altering patterns of disease. Written by a physician and world expert on climate and health and an award-winning science journalist, the book reveals the surprising links between global warming and cholera, malaria, lyme disease, asthma, and other health threats. Most importantly, Changing Planet, Changing Health delivers a suite of innovative solutions for shaping a healthy global economic order in the twenty-first century.

Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health – and How Can We Save Ourselves, by Linda Marsa (Rodale Books 2013, 245 pages, $25.99)

From spiraling rates of asthma and allergies and spikes in heatstroke-related deaths to swarms of invasive insects carrying diseases like dengue or West Nile and increases in heart and lung disease and cancer, the effect of rising temperatures on human health will be far-reaching, and is more imminent than we think. In Fevered, award-winning journalist Linda Marsa blends compelling narrative with cutting-edge science to explore the changes in Earth’s increasingly fragile support system and provide a blueprint detailing what we need to do to protect ourselves. In the tradition of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Marsa sounds the alarm on a subject that has largely been ignored and persuasively argues why preparedness for the health effects of climate change is the most critical issue affecting our survival in the coming century.

Read a 2013 interview with Marsa, posted just before her book was published.

Fatal Isolation: The Devastating Paris Heat Wave of 2003, by Richard C. Keller (University of Chicago Press 2015, 244 pages, $35.00)

In a cemetery on the southern outskirts of Paris lie the bodies of nearly a hundred of what some have called the first casualties of global climate change. They were the victims of the worst natural disaster in French history, the devastating heat wave that struck in August 2003, leaving 15,000 dead. Fatal Isolation tells the stories of these victims and the catastrophe that took their lives. It explores the multiple narratives: the official story of the crisis and its aftermath, the life stories of the individual victims, and the scientific understandings of disaster and its management. Fatal Isolation is both a social history of risk and vulnerability and a story of how a city copes with emerging threats and sudden, dramatic change.

Read YCC’s 2015 article on this book in 2015.

Heat Advisory: Protecting Health on a Warming Planet, by Alan H. Lockwood, M.D. (The MIT Press 2016, 239 pages, $19.95 paperback)

In Heat Advisory, physician Alan Lockwood, drawing on peer-reviewed scientific and medical research, shows how climate change is affecting global ecosystems and describes the resulting impacts on health. For example, rising temperatures create long-duration heat waves, increase the risk for certain infectious diseases, and can cause agricultural shortfalls, leading to undernutrition and famine. Climate change is real and it is happening now. We must use what we know to adapt to a warmer world and minimize adverse health effects. But we also need prevention. The ultimate preventive medicine is reducing greenhouse gas emissions and replacing energy sources that depend on fossil fuels with those that do not.

Climate Change and the Health of Nations: Famine, Fevers, and the Fate of Populations, by Anthony J. McMichael (Oxford University Press 2017, 370 pages, $39.95)

Climate change has occurred throughout human history, and populations have had to adapt to the climate’s vicissitudes. As renowned epidemiologist Anthony J. McMichael shows, the break-up of the Roman Empire, the bubonic Plague of Justinian, and the mysterious collapse of Mayan civilization all have roots in climate change. Why devote so much analysis to the past? Because the story of mankind’s previous survival in the face of an unpredictable and unstable climate could not be more important as we face the new realities of man-made climate change. This book is not only a rigorous, innovative, and fascinating exploration of how climate affects the human condition, but also an urgent call to recognize our species’ utter reliance on the earth as it is.

And six reports

A Human Health Perspective on Climate Change, by Interagency Working Group on Climate Change and Health (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences 2010, 80 pages, free download)

This report is organized around 11 broad human health conditions likely to be affected by climate change: respiratory diseases; cancer; cardiovascular diseases; child development; heat-related morbidity and mortality; mental health and stress; neurological diseases and disorders; nutrition and food-borne illness; vector-borne and zoonotic diseases; waterborne diseases; and extreme-weather-related morbidity and mortality. Because so many climate change effects are prospective, the authors recognize that the health consequences identified in this report are not exhaustive. As more information becomes available, new research needs may be identified and others rejected, but it is their intent that this report serve as a baseline for further discussion.

Care Provision Fit for a Future Climate, by Rajat Gupta et al. (Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2016, 90 pages, free download)

Hotter, drier summers with heatwaves of greater frequency and intensity have serious implications for the UK’s aging population. This report reviews existing evidence and presents primary research in four case study care settings (two residential and two extra care) in England to assess the risks of summertime overheating, and to investigate the preparedness of the care settings, both now and in the future. The report shows that summertime overheating is both a current and future risk, yet there is currently little awareness or preparedness to implement suitable and long-term adaptation strategies. Collaboration among government departments and professional institutions is necessary to harmonize and standardize health-related and building thermal comfort-related thresholds, with particular consideration for these elderly care settings.

The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States, by United States Global Research Program (United States Global Research Program 2016, 332 pages, free download)

The health impacts of human-induced climate change are increasing nationwide. These impacts interact with underlying health, demographic, and socioeconomic factors, exacerbating some existing health threats and creating new public health challenges. This assessment provides definitive descriptions of these climate-related health burdens in the United States. Each chapter characterizes the strength of the scientific evidence for a given climate–health exposure pathway or “link” in the causal chain between a climate change impact and its associated health outcome. By enhancing our understanding of Americans’ changing health risks, this report allows us to identify, project, and respond to future threats. And it underscores the growing risk climate change poses to human health in the United States.

Healthy Air: A Global Analysis of the Role of Urban Trees in Addressing Particulate Matter Pollution and Extreme Heat, by Robb McDonald et al (Nature Conservancy 2016, 136 pages, free download)

Heatwaves are one of the world’s most underestimated threats, killing more than 12,000 people every year around the world – more than any other weather-related event. One relatively simple solution to this problem? Plant more trees in cities. Trees cool the air by casting shade and releasing water vapor, and their leaves can filter out fine particulate matter – one of the most dangerous forms of air pollution – generated from burning biomass and fossil fuels. The Nature Conservancy has studied the effects of trees on air quality in 245 of the world’s largest cities and documented the findings in the Planting Healthy Air report. While trees alone can’t solve cities’ air and heat problems, they are a critical piece of the puzzle. Even a conservative global investment in urban trees, the report shows, could save tens of thousands of lives.

Medical Alert! Climate Change Is Harming Health, Medical Consortium on Climate and Health (Medical Consortium on Climate and Health 2017, 28 pages, free download)

A recent survey showed that most Americans have not considered how global warming might affect people’s health. Few are aware that some groups of Americans – including our children, our elders, the sick and the poor – are most likely to be harmed by climate change. None of these survey findings is surprising. There has been little public discussion of the health harms of climate change. But we also know that people are eager to hear from their health providers. Most respondents said that their primary care physician is a trusted source of information about this topic. With Medical Alert! we hope to share our growing understanding and concern about the health consequences of climate change with all Americans.

Hidden Price Tags: How Ending Fossil Fuels Subsidies Would Benefit Our Health, by Vijoleta Gordeljevic et al (Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) 2017, 61 pages, free download )

Every year air pollution from fossil fuel combustion cuts short the lives of an estimated 6.5 million people worldwide through respiratory tract infections, strokes, heart attacks, lung cancer and chronic lung disease. This report examines the true costs of these health impacts in seven countries: China, Germany, India, Poland, South Africa, Turkey, and the U.K. The authors then recommend policies to phase out fossil fuel subsidies – by 2020 for developed nations and by 2025 for low-income economies – to decrease premature deaths, poor health and climate chaos and to pave the way for renewable, clean energy choices and their multiple health benefits. Finally, the report highlights how the funds could be re-allocated to boost health in the seven countries spotlighted.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since 2005. Before completing his interdisciplinary...