Who Is at Risk from Climate Change?

Climate change endangers everyone, but the risks aren’t shared equally.

Millions of people face greater risk to their health because of climate change, including from increased risk of air pollution and extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and wildfires, among other challenges.

If you have lung disease, you face health risks from both ground-level ozone and particle pollution, as well as from the impacts of extreme weather and airborne allergens. Just a few of these threats include shortness of breath, chest pain, wheezing, coughing, asthma attacks and increased need for medical attention. It may be harder to maintain your disease management if you have to evacuate or repair your home after floods or storms.

Children face greater risks from pollution worsened by climate change than adults. Their lungs and their bodies' defenses are still developing, and they breathe more air per pound than adults. Because they often spend more time outdoors, kids also breathe more polluted air than adults do for their size. In addition, children may be harmed by warmer temperatures and are at greater risk from the impact of emergency weather events and natural disasters, among other threats.

For older adults, particularly those coping with lung diseases, climate change poses many risks that can be dangerous, even deadly. Higher air pollution associated with climate change is particularly risky for older adults. Studies have found that increased heat and exposure to air pollution increases the risk of premature death, as well as increased risk of emergency room visits and hospital admissions, especially among those older adults who spend more time outdoors. Bodily changes associated with aging—including those that affect breathing and movement—can make it even more difficult to respond to climate change.

Individuals who are pregnant and their fetuses also face greater risks from climate impacts, including increases in ozone and particle pollution. Exposure to air pollution during pregnancy can increase the risk of hypertensive disorders, including preeclampsia, in the mother and disrupt the growth and development of the fetus. Exposure to both ozone and particle pollution during pregnancy is strongly associated with premature birth, low birth weight and stillbirth. These risks are amplified in pregnancies where the mother is already at higher risk, such as people of color and those chronic conditions, especially asthma.

People who have low incomes and some communities of color face higher risk, too. Low income and social position may make some groups more susceptible to health threats because of where they live or work, including near places that have higher levels of pollution, or because they have a harder time getting medical care. Many are more likely to have chronic diseases like asthma. They also face greater challenges responding to extreme weather events.

People who work outside face higher risk from climate change because they are more vulnerable to the impacts of extreme weather events, including extreme heat, and worsening air quality.

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Protect Yourself

Use our resources for people with lung disease. Two fact sheets tell you what you need to KNOW and what you need to DO.

Resources For Health Professionals

Learn what public health professionals should know and communicate about climate change and respiratory health.
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Page last updated: May 10, 2024

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