8 Ways Climate Change Puts Your Safety at Risk

Worried about climate change? Or just plain confused? Here's 8 concrete ways climate change puts your safety at risk.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #235

drought damaged corn

The current presidential administration in the US has proposed to almost completely eliminate funding for programs aimed at researching and reducing the effects of climate change. The Environmental Protection Agency faces a cut of 31% or roughly $2.4 billion and almost 4,000 jobs. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could be cut by a potential 17% which would specifically eliminate $510 million (or ~22%) of their satellite division. These cuts would likely encompass climate programs like EnergyStar, SmartWay, fuel emission standards, and weather warning systems.  

Let’s look at 8 ways climate change poses risks, or potential risks, to our health and safety.

1. Extreme weather puts your safety at risk, especially when we cannot plan ahead.

Rising global average temperatures are linked to widespread changes in weather patterns and an increase in the frequency and intensity of weather events like heat waves, and rain or snow storms. Around 2.1 million acres were burned by wildfires in the first 3 months of 2017, three times the amount lost in the previous year. Massachusetts saw its first tornado since it began documenting weather patterns in the 1600s.

In many areas across the globe, like the northeastern US, we have become accustomed to snowstorms that drop more than 20 inches of snow each winter, but such blizzards were once rare. Not only can extreme storms be inherently dangerous, but their risk is compounded by cuts to satellite programs that are tasked with tracking weather patterns. Without enough funding to maintain existing satellites and for improving and adapting models of weather phenomena, our ability to accurately forecast and thus plan ahead for extreme weather events is significantly hindered.

2. Climate change puts our fresh water supply at risk.

As an astronomer, I can tell you that nothing is deemed more vital to our existence than water. 

As an astronomer, I can tell you that nothing is deemed more vital to our existence than water. When we discover a new planet, the first question we ask is always, could there be water?

Rising temperatures and extreme weather events like droughts will clearly place water supplies at risk. According to the US Geological Survey, while surface water can recover with just a few days of heavy rain, groundwater aquifers like those tapped during the recent Californian drought can take decades to replenish. Droughts also lead to drier conditions which put land at higher risk for wildfires. In the US, you can check the level of fire danger in your area thanks to the National Park Service and the National Fire Danger Rating System.

But too much rain can also be a problem for our water supply. Flooding from heavy rains can cause sewage to overflow and contaminate drinking water. Earlier this year 1.5 million people were without water in Santiago because mudslides and flooding caused by heavy rain contaminated the Maipo River, a major source of drinking water. The rising sea levels linked to rising global temperatures also threaten to groundwater used for drinking with contamination from saltwater. One program that helps US coastal communities in 33 states deal with flooding, the NOAA’s Sea Grant program, faces drastic cuts in the newly proposed budget.  

Let us also not forget that as water becomes scarcer, water bills will go up, which may force some of us to make budget cuts in other areas of our lives, even if that involves risk.

3. Food production could be disrupted leading to higher prices.

With some areas facing increased flooding and others enduring longer droughts, food production could be significantly disrupted with the onset of climate change. Some areas may become too hot for crops that have grown there easily in the past. Too little water would cause problems for irrigation while too much water in the form of rainstorms could damage crops.

According to the National Resources Defense Council, 25% of the the honey bee population has disappeared since 1990, in large part due to shrinking habitats, or, in other words, a loss in areas with temperatures and conditions suitable for bees to survive. Having fewer bees poses a further threat to at least 30% of the world’s crops which rely on bees for cross-pollination, crops like apples, almonds, pumpkins, onions, and avocados. On the flip side, some plants, like crop-harming weeds, as well as certain pests that thrive in hotter temperatures may see population booms, stealing resources from food crops.

4. Many allergens and disease carrying insects will thrive under the changing climate.

Among the pests that will thrive under the high temperatures and higher levels of carbon dioxide that are associated with climate change, ticks and poison ivy rank highly. Studies have shown that while the average tree will grow 8% faster in a climate with high levels of carbon dioxide, poison ivy grows 149% faster. Scientists have already observed the poison ivy/oak/sumac populations to be stronger, leading to more intense rashes. As a sufferer of poison ivy myself, I know that each emergency trip to the doctor following an encounter with the plant can also cost a pretty penny.

Tick populations are also booming in the US and the number of reported cases of Lyme disease has doubled since 1990. Warmer temperatures have lead to ticks moving farther and farther north expanding their geographic reach.


Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Ask Science. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.