The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, planned to hold a Climate and Health Summit, set for February 14-16, 2017. The conference was important and timely, as increasing numbers of scientific studies point to the fact that rapid climate change has the potential to undermine a half-century of health advances as more and more people experience health issues related to droughts, flooding and heat waves.
Abruptly last week, however, on January 24, 2017, the summit was called off. The only reason given, reported news source CNBC, was that it was a “strategic retreat, intended to head off a possible last-minute cancellation or other repercussions” from government officials who may prove hostile to spending money on climate change science.
Almost two years ago, in April 2015, I asked you if it was time to think of climate change as predominantly a health issue rather than an environmental problem in a post titled Linking Climate Change to Personal Health: Game Changer. I had hoped that it would be a game changer. It wasn’t.
But now, two years later, we have even more evidence on how climate change impacts your health. So, let’s again take a look at the scientifically proven links between a rapidly warming world and human health. It’s time—and timely.
The march of rapid climate change since 2015
First, what’s happened in climate change news since 2015? The most dramatic recent events may have occurred in the Arctic: significantly warmer temperatures, less sea ice and more open water.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in November 2016, the average Arctic sea-ice extent—the measurement used to represent the area of ocean where there is at least some sea ice—was 17.7 percent below averages from 1981 to 2010. That’s the lowest November extremity since record-keeping began in 1979.
And, in November 2016, temperatures at the North Pole were about 50 degrees warmer than normal. When the Arctic warms, dangerous amounts of the greenhouse gas methane are released, which absorb the sun’s heat and further warm the atmosphere. In the first two decades after it is released, methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.
Climate scientists stress that the only way to change course is to dramatically mitigate the rise of greenhouse gases worldwide.
Earth’s good health = your good health
What does this rapid climate change, seen so dramatically in the Arctic, mean for you, if you live nowhere near the pole?
Quite a lot, actually. The warming of the Arctic is directly tied to extreme weather in the Northern Hemisphere. When the barrier between the cold north and the warm south weakens, cold air masses more easily move south and warm air masses more easily move north, fueling changes in surface ocean currents that can exacerbate extreme weather events. And, as sea ice transforms into open water, that open water absorbs more heat, putting into motion a cycle of warming that increases moisture levels and raises the odds of destabilizing events, such as floods and droughts, throughout the hemisphere.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists several health repercussions that result from rapid climate change, such as:
• Temperature-related impacts: Hotter days and more frequent and longer heat waves will lead to an increase in heat-related deaths in the United States—thousands to tens of thousands of additional deaths each year by the end of the century during summer months. These deaths will not be offset by the smaller reduction in cold-related deaths projected in the winter months.
• Air-quality impacts: Warmer temperatures and shifting weather patterns can worsen air quality, which can lead to asthma attacks and other respiratory and cardiovascular health effects. Wildfires, which are expected to continue to increase in number and severity, create smoke and other unhealthy air pollutants. Rising carbon dioxide levels and warmer temperatures also affect airborne allergens, such as ragweed pollen, by extending their seasons.
• Extreme-weather impacts: Increases in the frequency or severity of some weather episodes, such as droughts, flooding, hurricanes, precipitation and storms, threaten the health of people during and after the events. Those most at risk include young children, older adults, people with disabilities or medical conditions, and the poor. For example, bouts of severe weather can:
- damage bridges and roads, disrupting access to hospitals and pharmacies;
- interrupt communication, utility and health-care services;
- contribute to carbon monoxide poisoning from improper use of portable electric generators during and after storms;
- increase stomach and intestinal illness, particularly following power outages;
- create or worsen mental-health issues, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder; and
- kill people. Hurricane Katrina, one of the most devastating hurricanes in the United States, is responsible for an estimated 971 to 1,300 deaths.
• Vector-borne disease impacts: Vectors, which include fleas, mosquitoes and ticks, transfer infectious pathogens, such as bacteria, protozoa and viruses, from nonhuman animals to humans. Changes in temperature and precipitation increase the geographic range of diseases spread by vectors and can lead to illnesses occurring earlier in the year.
• Food-safety and nutrition impacts: Higher air temperatures can increase cases of salmonella and other bacteria-related food poisoning because bacteria grow more rapidly in warm environments. Higher sea surface temperatures will lead to higher mercury concentrations in seafood. More frequent heavy rains cause more storm-water runoff, which can introduce contaminants into drinking or recreational water. Bacteria and water contamination can cause gastrointestinal distress and, in severe cases, death.
• Mental-health impacts: Experiencing an extreme weather event can cause stress and other mental-health consequences, particularly when a person loses loved ones or his or her home. Individuals with mental illness are especially vulnerable to extreme heat; studies have found that having a pre-existing mental illness tripled the risk of death during heat waves. People taking medication for mental illness that makes it difficult to regulate body temperature are particularly at risk.
The call to convene continues
Luckily, there will still be a climate and health conference next month in Atlanta, Georgia. It just won’t have the federal government behind it. Instead, nongovernmental groups, including The Climate Reality Project, the Harvard Global Health Institute and the Turner Foundation, Inc., will support the conference. Environmentalist and 45th vice president of the United States Al Gore will host it. In a press release, Gore stated: “Today we face a challenging political climate, but climate shouldn’t be a political issue. Health professionals urgently need the very best science in order to protect the public, and climate science has increasingly critical implications for their day-to-day work. With more and more hot days, which exacerbate the proliferation of the Zika virus and other public health threats, we cannot afford to waste any time.”
At this point, according to The Washington Post, it’s not clear whether government CDC employees—those responsible for safeguarding our health—will be allowed to attend.
On his Children and Nature Network website, Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, quotes philosopher Ivan Illich: To change a society, “you must tell a more powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into our future so that we can take the next step… .”
Conferences can do that. They bring people together to hear stories, to tell stories and to learn how to repeat those stories to others.
Keep telling the climate change stories; stories that are backed up by reams of scientific papers. And keep the conferences coming.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,