Family Politics: Ranking Climate Change

Candice Gaukel Andrews June 28, 2016 0
The frequency of large wildfires and the total area burned have been steadily increasing in the Western United States, with global warming being a major contributing factor. Wood smoke has high levels of particulate matter and toxins, resulting in significant impacts on local air quality, visibility and human health. ©Bureau of Land Management

Rapid climate change is a major factor in the increasing frequency of large wildfires in the western U.S. Wood smoke significantly affects local air quality, visibility and human health. ©Bureau of Land Management

My sister and I, like most sisters, share a lot in common. But we don’t always see eye to eye when it comes to politics. Yesterday, she told me that in this election year, environmental issues rank third on her list of concerns, behind that of building a strong nation and public safety.

I would argue that in order to ensure national security and the health and well-being of our people, the environment must be the first priority. Rising global temperatures due to rapid climate change are greatly contributing to instability around the world and the spread of disease.

According to a study reported by the National Science Foundation on June 13, 2016, scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, say that if climate change continues on its current trajectory, the probability that summers between 2061 and 2080 will be warmer than the hottest on record stands at 80 percent across the world’s land areas, excluding Antarctica, which was not studied. However, if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, that probability drops to 41 percent.

Given how hotter temperatures are already negatively affecting our world, isn’t that a percentage worth trying to achieve—almost above everything else?

A look at the world’s warm future

Climate change influences human health and world politics in numerous ways. ©CDC

Climate change influences human health and world politics in numerous ways. ©CDC

Often, climate change deniers say that our rising temperatures are due to nothing more than natural variability. That’s what makes the NCAR study so fascinating. Instead of just comparing the future to past summers, the climate models used in the research afforded the opportunity to create more than 1,400 possible past summers, resulting in a more comprehensive look at what should be considered natural variability and what can be attributed to climate change.

The study’s authors concluded that between 2061 and 2080, summers in large parts of Africa, North and South America, Asia and central Europe have a greater than 90 percent chance of being warmer than any summer in the historic record if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated. In some regions, the likelihood of summers being warmer than any in the historical record remained less than 50 percent, but in those places (including Alaska, Australia, Scandinavia, Siberia and the central United States), summer temperatures naturally vary greatly, making it more difficult to detect effects of climate change.

Here, then, is what we can expect in the near future:

A mosquito with the potential to carry the Zika virus has been discovered in Washington, D.C. ©NIAID

• According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), higher temperatures are already causing deaths. Cities such as Chicago, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and St. Louis have experienced large increases in death rates during heat waves. Extreme heat events can trigger heat stroke, a condition that can cause death or permanent disability. Small children, the elderly, people with chronic diseases, low-income populations and outdoor workers have the highest risk for heat-related illnesses.

• People living in drought conditions are more likely to encounter dangerous situations, such as dust storms, flash floods and wildfires. Wildfires associated with drought conditions greatly reduce air quality, affecting people’s health in a number of ways. Exposure to wildfire smoke increases respiratory and cardiovascular hospitalizations and medical visits for lung illnesses. It also increases the need for treatments for asthma, bronchitis and other breathing problems.

• According to a January 2016 article in National Geographic magazine, in 2030 the number of additional deaths caused by climate change could be 250,000. Shrinking food supplies and deteriorating water quality and sanitation may increase deaths. Forced migrations will cause civil conflicts, which also increase deaths.

Seventeen countries rank climate change as third in their list of global concerns. ©

Seventeen countries rank climate change as third in their list of global concerns. ©

• Bloodsucking insects transmit many illnesses caused by pathogens and parasites. Mosquitoes carry malaria, dengue hemorrhagic fever and West Nile virus. Sand flies carry sandfly fever and leishmaniasis. Ticks carry Lyme disease and encephalitis. As the planet warms, their ranges could expand.

• Scientists at the University of Notre Dame report that a population of Aedes aegypt, the tropical mosquito species that transmits the Zika virus, is wintering below ground on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Finding the mosquito breeding so far North is unprecedented; and although this population currently is not carrying the virus, all signs indicate that it will be able to grow its extent in the U.S. There is now potential for mosquito-borne tropical diseases to be transmitted in popular places, such as the National Mall.

Events, such as those above, are causing a more unstable and unsafe world; even wars.

A vision for change

There is some hope. While reducing emissions would lower the global probability of future summers that are hotter than any in the past, it would not result in uniformly spread benefits. On the East Coast, in large parts of the tropics and in other regions, the probability would remain above 90 percent, even if emissions were reduced.

But reduced emissions would result in a great benefit for other areas. Parts of Brazil, eastern China and central Europe would see a reduction of more than 50 percent in the chance that future summers would be hotter than the historic range. Since these areas are densely inhabited, a large part of the global population would profit significantly from climate change mitigation.

Seeing past the political year

Is national security your priority this election year? ©Sebastian Bassi, flickr

Is national security your priority this election year? ©Sebastian Bassi, flickr

Actually, my sister is not alone in her beliefs. In fact, recent research by YouGov in the United Kingdom reveals climate change is considered the third most serious issue facing the world by 17 nations, with a 12.8 percent share of concern, behind international terrorism (25.1 percent) and poverty, hunger and the lack of drinking water (15.2 percent).

But when I last wrote on the topic of climate change and health—a year and three months ago in April 2015—I stated that 2014 had officially been named the hottest year on record. Since that time, 2015 surpassed it, and 2016 is already slated to be hotter still.

What would you say tops your list of concerns in this political year?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,


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