Effects on people, animals and the environment

How will climate change affect you? Your community? The environment around you?

Global climate change will affect people and the environment in many ways. Some of these impacts, like stronger hurricanes and severe heat waves, could be life threatening. Others, like spreading weeds, will be less serious. And some effects, like longer growing seasons for crops, might even be good! However, as the Earth keeps getting warmer, the negative effects are expected to outweigh the positive ones.

The more we learn about how climate change will affect people and the environment, the more we can see why people need to take action to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change. We can also take steps to prepare for the changes we know are coming.

Birds in sky

Heat waves, air pollution, allergens like pollen and ragweed, and diseases linked to climate already threaten people's health in many areas of the world. Global climate change will increase these threats.

As the Earth gets warmer, there will be more heat waves and they will last longer. More people will be at risk for illnesses like heat stroke and heat exhaustion.

Warmer weather could also increase the amount of smog that forms in some areas. Smog can irritate your lungs, trigger asthma attacks, and even lead to serious heart and lung diseases.A warmer climate is also expected to promote the growth of mold, weeds, grasses, and trees that trigger allergic reactions and asthma in some people.Warmer temperatures can allow mosquitoes and other pests to spread to areas that were once too cold for them and allow them to transmit disease for a longer part of the year. Climate change can also increase the risk of waterborne diseases in some areas. 



Heat waves, severe storms, air pollution, and diseases linked to climate already threaten people's health in many areas of the world. Global climate change will increase these threats. Some people will be particularly at risk, especially those who are poor, very young or elderly, or disabled, or those who live in coastal areas or big cities.


What's at stake
Temparature related illnesses

Heat waves are uncomfortable for everyone, but for infants and young children, the elderly, and people who are already sick, they can be especially dangerous. Extreme heat can cause illnesses such as heat cramps, heat stroke, and even death. A 2003 heat wave in Europe caused about 50,000 deaths, and a 1995 heat wave in Chicago caused more than 600 deaths. In fact, heat waves cause more deaths in the United States every year than hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined.

On the flip side, as the world gets warmer, the number of illnesses and deaths related to extreme cold (like hypothermia and frostbite) may decrease.

Emergency Room Personnel

  • What can people do about it?
    People should take precautions on hot days to keep cool. Cities can also set up heat wave warning systems and air-conditioned shelters where people can cool off.
Air pollution
You probably know someone with asthma, or maybe you have this condition yourself. Certain kinds of air pollutants, like ozone, can make asthma and other lung conditions worse. Ozone found high in the atmosphere is called "good ozone" because it protects life on Earth from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays. Ozone can also be found close to the surface of the Earth, where it is considered “bad ozone” because it's the main ingredient of smog and is harmful for people to breathe. Bad ozone is created from pollutants that go through chemical reactions in the atmosphere. Climate change is likely to increase the amount of bad ozone in the air because more ozone is created when the temperature is warm. 
Boy using asthma inhaler
  • What can people do about it?
    People can check the daily air quality forecast for their area by looking in the newspaper, on TV, or on weather websites. Air quality alerts can also be found at www.airnow.gov. When ozone levels are high, people should be careful about exercising or working outdoors.
Spreading diseases
Climate change might allow some infectious diseases to spread. As winter temperatures increase, ticks and mosquitoes that carry diseases can survive longer throughout the year and expand their ranges, putting more people at risk. One big concern is malaria, a deadly disease spread by mosquitoes in many hot, humid parts of the world.
Mosquito on skin
  • What can people do about it?
    People should take common-sense steps to avoid tick and mosquito bites, and communities can take actions to control mosquitoes, such as removing sources of standing water. It's also important for doctors to know the symptoms of diseases that could be spreading to new areas so they can diagnose and treat their patients.


The crops that we grow for food need specific conditions to thrive, including the right temperature and enough water. A changing climate could have both positive and negative effects on crops. For example, the northern parts of the United States have generally cool temperatures, so warmer weather could help certain crops grow. In southern areas where temperatures are already hot, even more heat could hurt crop growth. Global climate change will also affect agriculture and food supply in many other ways.
What's at stake
Crop losses
Climate change could make it too hot to grow certain crops, and droughts caused by climate change could reduce the amount of water available for irrigation. Climate change is also likely to cause stronger storms and more floods, which can damage crops. Higher temperatures and changing rainfall patterns could help some kinds of weeds and pests to spread to new areas. If the global temperature rises an additional 3.6°F, U.S. corn production is expected to decrease by 10 to 30 percent.
field and blue sky
  • What can people do about it?
    Farmers may be able to prepare for climate change by planting crops during different times of the year, or by planting crops that can survive better in hot and dry conditions.


Global climate change will affect how much energy we need and when we need it. As temperatures rise, more people will need to keep cool by using air conditioning, which uses a lot of electricity. However, some people might need less energy to heat buildings in the winter because it may not get as cold as it used to be. Climate change could also make it harder to produce certain types of electricity, such as hydropower.

What's at stake
As climate change causes precipitation patterns to shift, some areas that currently have plenty of water to make hydropower, such as northern California, might not have enough water in the future. Without enough water to produce electricity, these areas could experience power shortages and blackouts. They might have to use other energy sources to make more of the electricity they need, and if these sources are fossil fuels like coal, oil, or natural gas, more greenhouse gases will be added to the atmosphere.
Dam in mountainside

What can people do about it?
If climate change begins to affect hydropower production, people can adapt by using less energy, using energy in more efficient ways, or finding other clean energy sources.


Air conditioning
Climate change will lead to more hot days and more heat waves. As a result, people will need to use more air conditioning to stay cool. As people use more air conditioning, electricity shortages and blackouts could increase. Because most electricity is currently produced by burning fossil fuels, using more electricity to run air conditioners will also add more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
Apartment complex with air conditioners
  • What can people do about it?
    People can plant trees near offices and homes to provide shade and keep them cool naturally. They can also use fans instead of air conditioners when it's not too hot. When air conditioning is needed, people can save energy by setting the thermostat a few degrees warmer. When buying a new air conditioner, people can choose energy–efficient models.

Water supplies

Climate change is affecting where, when, and how much water is available for people to use. Many parts of the world already have very little water, and climate change could make this problem worse. Rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and increasing droughts will affect the amount of water in lakes, rivers, and streams, as well as the amount of water that seeps into the ground to replenish ground water.
What's at stake
Public water upplies
In 2007, a major drought hit the southeastern United States. Lake Lanier, which is the main source of drinking water for the Atlanta area, was reduced to record–low water levels. People had to use less water in their homes and businesses and make other changes, such as not watering their lawns.
  • Drought-stricken area
  • What can people do about it?
  • As climate change continues, people might have to prepare for water shortages by using less water.
Lake, rivers, streams
Many places rely on snowmelt to fill the lakes, rivers, and streams that help keep drinking water reservoirs full and provide water to irrigate crops. For example, many parts of the western United States depend on water from the Colorado River, which is fed by melting snowpack in the Rocky Mountains. Less snowpack and earlier snowmelt will reduce the amount of water flowing into the Colorado and other rivers.
  • What can people do about it?
    Communities might have to find new sources of water to support their needs. People might also have to adapt by using less water.

Plants, animals and ecosystems

Most plants and animals live in areas with very specific climate conditions, such as temperature and rainfall patterns, that enable them to thrive. Any change in the climate of an area can affect the plants and animals living there, as well as the makeup of the entire ecosystem. Some species are already responding to a warmer climate by moving to cooler locations. For example, some North American animals and plants are moving farther north or to higher elevations to find suitable places to live. Climate change also alters the life cycles of plants and animals. For example, as temperatures get warmer, many plants are starting to grow and bloom earlier in the spring and survive longer into the fall. Some animals are waking from hibernation sooner or migrating at different times, too.
Disappearing habitats
As the Earth gets warmer, plants and animals that need to live in cold places, like on mountaintops or in the Arctic, might not have a suitable place to live. If the Earth keeps getting warmer, up to one–fourth of all the plants and animals on Earth could become extinct within 100 years. Every plant and animal plays a role in the ecosystem (for example, as a source of food, a predator, a pollinator, a source of shelter), so losing one species can affect many others.
Polar Bears
  • What can people do about it?
    Just like people, plants and animals will have to adapt to climate change. Many types of birds in North America are already migrating further north as the temperature warms. People can help these animals adapt by protecting and preserving their habitats.
Coral reefs
Coral reefs are created in shallow tropical waters by millions of tiny animals called corals. Each coral makes a skeleton for itself, and over time, these skeletons build up to create coral reefs, which provide habitat for lots of fish and other ocean creatures. Warmer water has already caused coral bleaching (a type of damage to corals) in many parts of the world. By 2050, live corals could become rare in tropical and sub-tropical reefs due to the combined effects of warmer water and increased ocean acidity caused by more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The loss of coral reefs will reduce habitats for many other sea creatures, and it will disrupt the food web that connects all the living things in the ocean.
Coral Reef
  • What can people do about it?
  • To help give coral reefs a better chance of surviving the effects of climate change, swimmers, boaters, and divers should treat these fragile ecosystems with care. People can also support groups working to protect coral reefs.


Forests provide homes for many kinds of plants and animals. They also protect water quality, offer opportunities for recreation, and provide people with wood. Forests are sensitive to many effects of climate change, including shifting weather patterns, drought, wildfires, and the spread of pests like the mountain pine beetle. Unlike some animals, trees can't just get up and move when the temperature gets too hot or other conditions change!
What's at stake
Reefs Wild fires
Wildfires are already common in the forests and grasslands of the western United States. As the Earth gets warmer and droughts increase, wildfires are expected to occur more often and be more destructive. Wildfires do occur naturally, but the extremely dry conditions resulting from droughts allow fires to start more easily, spread faster, and burn longer. In fact, if the Earth gets just 3.6°F warmer, we can expect wildfires in the western United States to burn four times more land than they do now. Fires don't just change the landscape; they also threaten people's homes and lives.
wildfire spreading


  • What can people do about it?
  • As the climate continues to change, people will have to prepare for the risk of increasing wildfires by becoming more aware of the danger, taking extra precautions to prevent fires, not building in fire-prone areas, and being ready to manage fires when they do occur.

Coastal areas

Global climate change threatens coastlines and the buildings and cities located along them. Hundreds of millions of people around the world live in low–lying areas near the coast that could be flooded as the sea level rises. Rising sea level will also erode beaches and damage many coastal wetlands. Rising sea level and stronger storms caused by warmer oceans could completely wipe out certain beaches and islands.

What's at stake
Coastal cities
Climate change poses risks for cities near the ocean. Places like Miami; New York City; New Orleans; and Venice, Italy, could flood more often or more severely if sea level continues to rise. If that happens, many people will lose their homes and businesses.
flooded tropical city
  • What can people do about it?
    Coastal cities can prepare for climate change by protecting or restoring natural shoreline buffers like sand dunes and wetlands, improving storm drainage systems, and building protective barriers where necessary.
Coastel wetlands
Climate change will damage coastal wetlands all over the world. Wetlands protect the shore from flooding, and they also provide important habitats for many types of plants and animals. For example, the Everglades are wetlands close to sea level in southern Florida that are home to diverse ecosystems. As sea level rises, salt water could flood parts of the Everglades, leaving animals such as birds, alligators, turtles, and panthers with less habitat.

What can people do about it?
People can protect wetlands as much as possible by not disturbing the land, the flow of water, or plants in these areas.



In addition to causing all sorts of problems, such as heat waves, droughts, and coastline damage, warmer temperatures could also affect people's jobs, recreational activities, and hobbies. For example, in areas that usually experience cold winters, warmer temperatures could reduce opportunities for skiing, ice fishing, and other winter sports. Also, rising sea level could wash away beaches.
What's at stake
Ski season
As air temperatures continue to rise, ski season won't last as long. Places that are used to getting lots of snow might get more rain instead. Some ski resorts might have to close because of climate change. There may be shorter seasons for other cold weather activities, like outdoor ice skating, snowmobiling, and ice fishing.
  • Skiing along mountain backdrop
  • What can people do about it?
    Owners of ski resorts and other businesses (such as hotels and restaurants) that depend on winter sports can take steps to prepare for a shorter or less profitable winter season. For example, some ski resorts have added activities like golf and mountain biking to make money during other parts of the year.

Higher sea level will mean less space at the beach. A combination of stronger storms and sea level rise could increase the rate of erosion along the coast, and some beaches could disappear altogether.

Two people running hand in hand near ocean

  • What can people do about it?
    People already add sand to certain beaches to replace sand that has washed away. In the future, people might have to replenish beach sand more often, but this will cost more money. In other places, people might choose to build sea walls or other structures to protect the shore from erosion. Ideally, these projects will be planned carefully to prevent them from damaging important habitats for plants and animals.
Again with a special thanks to the US EPA, a studenst guide to global climate change for all the information on this webpage

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