Climate Change and Health

Yesterday’s big political news was an executive order signed by President Donald Trump to begin the process of repealing the Clean Power Plan, a set of rules established by former President Barack Obama’s administration to limit carbon dioxide emissions by power plants. But amid this controversial move, there’s a growing body of evidence that climate change is harming human health — including, according to a new study, possibly leading to higher rates of Type 2 diabetes.

The study, published last week by the journal BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care, looked at data on temperatures as well as rates of Type 2 diabetes in the United States between 1996 and 2009. As described in a CNN article on the study, the researchers found that for every 1 degree Celsius (about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) that outdoor temperatures increased during the study period, the rate of Type 2 diabetes rose by about 4% — even after controlling for the effects of age and obesity on developing diabetes. While this doesn’t prove that climate change contributes to diabetes — it’s highly unlikely that any study could ever prove such a thing — it does beg the question of why this correlation exists.

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The researchers speculated that one way warmer temperatures could increase diabetes rates is their effect on a type of body fat called brown fat. One function of brown fat is to trigger the body to burn other body fat, and it’s activated, in part, by colder temperatures. If the body experiences warmer temperatures, it may burn less fat and experience metabolic changes as a result.

But as the CNN article notes, other scientists dispute that this effect could be large enough to cause such a significant increase in cases of diabetes. Still, other research on the effects of climate change points to possible ways it could contribute to diabetes — as well as other detrimental health effects. As a 2012 report by the International Diabetes Federation notes, climate change poses a threat to the supply of fresh produce, which may raise prices and lead to less consumption of healthy foods. It also may lead to higher rates of dehydration, which can have wide-ranging negative health effects.

Another possible link between climate change and diabetes may be worse air quality, which can harm cardiovascular health and possibly lead to less physical activity and other metabolic changes. Air quality was one of the health-related concerns listed in a report issued earlier this month by the Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health, which also noted that climate change is leading to higher incidences of extreme temperatures, extreme weather events, water- and foodborne illnesses, mosquito- and tick-borne infections, and wildfires throughout different regions of the United States.

What’s your take on the relationship between climate change and health, including diabetes — are you personally concerned about its effect on you? On your children or grandchildren? What do you think scientists and doctors can do to make the public more aware of this connection, which is so difficult to see on an individual level? How should elected officials and other policymakers respond? Leave a comment below!

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