8 Ways Climate Change Can Kill You

Cracked, desert ground in front of a city

 Benjamin Goode / iStockphoto

Sweltering summers and melting glaciers aren't the only effects of a warming planet. As global temperatures rise, weather patterns will change, food will become scarce and diseases will spread. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that 150,000 people are already killed by climate change-related issues every year, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said that global warming poses as much of a threat to the world as war.

What makes climate change so deadly? Check out our list of the eight ways global warming can kill you and find out.

1
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Extreme Weather

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Tornadoes, volcanoes and hurricanes, oh my! NASA climate models predict that a warmer planet means more severe storms with strong winds, heavy rain, damaging hail, deadly lightning and increased potential for tornadoes. Over the past century, the number of hurricanes that strike each year has more than doubled, and scientists blame rising sea temperatures.

Melting ice and rising sea levels can also affect the Earth’s crust, causing land to rebound and triggering volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis.

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High temperatures

Photo: By VladisChern/Shutterstock

More frequent heat waves are an obvious side effect of global warming, but higher temperatures also mean deadly droughts and wildfires. Water evaporates faster under such conditions, creating water shortages, leaving soil dry, and putting crops and livestock at risk. Hot, dry weather is also ideal for sparking wildfires, and scientists have traced a link between a warmer planet and the recent increase in wildfires.

Doctors warn that global warming will also create more heat-related deaths from cardiovascular problems and strokes. Young children and the elderly will be especially vulnerable to higher temperatures.

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Difficulty in food production

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As temperatures rise, droughts become more common and destructive storms become more frequent, it will be increasingly more difficult to produce food. In fact, a study by the International Institute for Strategic Studies concluded that 65 countries are likely to lose more than 15 percent of their agricultural output by 2100. Scientists have also predicted that the Southwest and Midwest U.S. could become as arid as the North American dust bowl of the 1930s. But mankind won’t be the only one struggling to live off the land — livestock raised for food will also go hungry.

Warming seas and more acidic waters —caused by the oceans’ absorbtion of carbon dioxide — also make it difficult for fish and other seafood to live. New England lobster numbers are already declining at an alarming rate, and wild pacific salmon have vanished from 40 percent of their traditional Northwestern habitats.

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Animal attack

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When the planet gets too warm, we won’t be the only ones without food — animals will be looking for new food sources and venturing into suburbs and cities. Perhaps Stephen Colbert was right when he said bears were a threat to the nation — there have been multiple bear attacks in the U.S. this year, and wildlife officials are advising people to put away birdseed and secure their trash to discourage the animals.

Why are bears so hungry? Because berries, pinecones and nuts are in short supply due to poor growing conditions caused by climate change. Moscow officials have even warned citizens about threats from brown bear attacks because winters have been too warm for bears to hibernate, making them unusually aggressive.

But bears won’t be the only ones changing with the climate. As warming oceans erase the natural temperature barrier between the open sea and the shore, jellyfish will venture closer to coastlines. More than 700 people were stung by jellyfish off the coast of Spain this year, and in 2006, more than 30,000 were stung in the Mediterranean. As the planet continues to warm, scientists say the number of jellyfish congregating along beaches will continue to increase.

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Poor air quality

Mikhail Metzel/AP.

Death by smog will become increasingly common on an overheated planet — warmer temperatures help intensify smog levels. In fact, doctors have said that smog-related deaths could rise by 80 percent over the next 20 years.

Additionally, climate change increases ground-level ozone when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds react with sunlight, which is especially damaging to lung tissue. Plus, a 2004 Harvard study showed that higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere help allergens like mold and ragweed grow, which means more allergies and higher rates of asthma attacks. Mix in some volcanic ash and smoke from wildfires and you have a good recipe for worldwide respiratory problems.

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Lack of clean water

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Floods and other changes in weather patterns will affect the quality of water, making clean water scarcer than it already is, and devastating droughts will exacerbate the situation. Air pollution from smog, smoke and volcanic ash can further contaminate water, making it unsafe for consumption. Plus, as some areas of the globe become uninhabitable due to desertification, natural disasters, pollution, disease or lack of resources, people will migrate in massive numbers, increasing garbage and water pollution.

And some water might just vanish. Scientists blame global warming for the sudden disappearance of a lake in Chile, climate scientists predict that global warming could dry up many of Africa's rivers, and the Ganges River could be dry in just a matter of years.

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Disease

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Global warming may be bad news for us, but it’s good news for disease-carrying mice, rats and insects. Warm-weather insects like ticks and mosquitoes used to be restricted to tropical areas and were killed off in the winter, but they’re now living longer and migrating farther north. As these insects spread, they’re exposing large populations of people to diseases they’re unprepared to combat.

Dengue fever, a disease that causes internal bleeding and has no vaccine, has spread to Florida. Ticks carrying Lyme disease have spread to the coastlines of Scandinavia, an area that was previously too cold for them to survive. Cholera appeared in the newly warmed waters of South America for the first time in 1991. And West Nile virus, once confined to countries along the equator, is now found as far north as Canada and has infected more than 21,000 people in the United States.

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Wars

Jae C. Hong/AP.

Communities and nations could be fighting over access to food and clean water as global warming makes parts of the world uninhabitable. Much of the violence will occur in refugee camps as people are forced to live close together for survival. A study by the relief group Christian Aid estimates the number of refugees around the world will top a billion by 2050, thanks in large part to global warming. These communities can damage familial and cultural cohesion as people fight for basic needs like food and water.