• In the US alone, more than 50 million people have an allergy.
  • Climate change is lengthening the duration of natural pollen seasons.
  • In the US, pollen seasons are starting 20 days sooner than they did in the 1990s.

It can start with a barely noticeable change to your breathing. Perhaps a little lightheadedness, too. Your eyes start to moisten and your skin tingles. Soon, your synapses will trigger behaviours you cannot control. And there it is – you’ve sneezed.

When you sneeze, at speeds approaching 160km/h, your mouth and nose expel air, mucus, and germs as far as eight metres away.

During allergy season, some unfortunate souls spend a disproportionate part of their time experiencing some or all of the above. In the US alone, more than 50 million people are allergy sufferers.

Now scientists say climate change could be causing allergy season to start earlier and last longer.

More pollen for longer

A team of researchers from institutions across the US has reviewed data relating to pollen trends from 1990 to 2018. The conclusions they came to were that pollen is present in the air 20 days sooner than it used to be and at significantly higher concentrations – as much as 21% up.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences (PNAS), the report’s authors write: “Airborne pollen has major respiratory health impacts and anthropogenic climate change may increase pollen concentrations and extend pollen seasons."

Tracking pollen across the US: Warm colours indicate increasing annual pollen integrals.
Image: PNAS/William R. L. Anderegg et al

Furthermore, their results strongly suggest that “human-caused climate change has already worsened North American pollen seasons.” The situation is only likely to get worse, they believe, which could have serious consequences for some people’s respiratory health.

Increasing air quality pressures

Changes in the climate can affect local air quality, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. These impacts include atmospheric warming's potential to increase ground-level ozone, which can be harmful to health. Experts are also investigating the influence of climate change on fine particulate matter and other air pollutants.

Countries with the cleanest air
How clean is the air in your country?
Image: Visual Capitalist

Historically, burning fossil fuels has been one of the main contributors to the problem of poor air quality. More than 8 million people around the world die each year as a result of breathing poor-quality air, according to research from Harvard University, University College London, the University of Birmingham and the University of Leicester. Mostly, that means air containing dangerous particles from coal, petrol and diesel. Among the causes of death are heart disease, lung cancer, and strokes.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Climate change poses an urgent threat demanding decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts to floods to rising seas. The World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report continues to rank these environmental threats at the top of the list.

To limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policy-makers, and civil society advance comprehensive near- and long-term climate actions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The World Economic Forum's Climate Initiative supports the scaling and acceleration of global climate action through public and private-sector collaboration. The Initiative works across several workstreams to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious solutions.

This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global network of business leaders from various industries developing cost-effective solutions to transitioning to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. CEOs use their position and influence with policy-makers and corporate partners to accelerate the transition and realize the economic benefits of delivering a safer climate.

Contact us to get involved.

“Allergies and asthma are responsible for substantial morbidity burdens and associated medical costs in the US,” the report in PNAS goes on to say.

By connecting the challenges of poor air quality, respiratory health and climate change, the study indicates the potential for serious, ongoing public health crises and warns the situation could worsen as average global temperatures continue to climb.

Doing something about it

Climate change and the efforts to prevent it remains a major global challenge and as the World Economic Forum's latest Global Risks Report highlights, failure to do so presents a serious threat.

But, from global action, like the Paris Agreement or the Misson Possible Partnership, to more targeted initiatives, like the 1t.org (trillion trees) United States Chapter, businesses, governments and civil society are working together to bring about rapid change.