The Obama administration has released a major new report on how manmade global warming is making Americans sicker—and it's only going to get worse.
Developed over three years and involving approximately 100 climate and public health experts, the 332-page report was based on more than 1,800 published scientific studies and new federal research and was reviewed by the National Academies of Sciences.
The report, The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States, "significantly advances what we know about the impacts of climate change on public health and the confidence with which we know it," according to a White House fact sheet about the report.
"As the climate continues to change, the risks to human health will grow, exacerbating existing health threats and creating new public health challenges and impacting more people in more places," the fact sheet states. "From children to the elderly, every American is vulnerable to the health impacts associated with climate change, now and in the future."
The report also involved the participation of representatives from a number of federal departments and agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs..
"It's not just about polar bears and melting ice caps," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy at a White House event unveiling the report. "It's about our families. It's about our future."
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said that climate change affects more people in more ways than doctors are accustomed to seeing. Noting that the report will help doctors to quantify "the sheer number of pathways through which climate affects health," Murthy called out increased pollen, wildfire and air pollution exacerbated by emissions from power plants as emergent climate change-related threats to public health.
Here are nine ways global warming increases health risks.
1. Increased Asthma and Respiratory Illness
The report projects that by 2030, due to “future ozone-related human health impacts attributable to climate change,” the U.S. can expect to see hundreds or even thousands of premature deaths, not to mention increases in hospital admissions and cases of acute respiratory illnesses every single year.
The report underscores the particular impact on children. Due to their immature respiratory and immune systems, kids can expect to experience more episodes of asthma and other adverse respiratory effects due to climate change. "Not being able to breathe is one of the most frightening experiences" a person can have, Surgeon General Murthy said. "We're talking about scary moments for parents and children."
An estimated five million children in the U.S. currently suffer from asthma, the most common chronic disease among children, According to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, “asthma is the number one reason that children miss school, go to emergency rooms and are admitted to hospitals.”
"Now we're seeing [asthma] worsening because of the heat, the allergens [and air pollution],” said Lynn Goldman, dean of the George Washington University's public health school.
2. Worsening Allergies
Every spring, flowers bloom and with them, pollen spores are spread throughout the air, increasing allergies. With warming temperatures ushered in by climate change, the pollen season has lengthened, exacerbating the symptoms of hay fever for an estimated 40 million Americans who suffer from allergies, triggering annual healthcare costs of more than $21 billion.
Between 1995 and 2011 in central North America, the ragweed pollen season has increased by as much as 11 to 27 days. That has already had significant impacts on some 6.8 million kids who are susceptible to allergens.
3. Premature Deaths from Extreme Heat
White House science adviser John Holdren underscored the looming threat of increased heat waves, warning that greenhouse gas reductions at this point won't stop fatalities caused by increased temperatures. "We can see thousands to tens of thousands of heat-related deaths in the United States each summer," he warned.
These premature deaths are expected to outpace projected deaths due to extreme cold. The western part of the country, in particular, will experience an increase in both the frequency and intensity of heat waves. Using a 1990 baseline for more than 200 U.S. cities, one model projected an increase of more than 11,000 additional deaths during the summer in 2030, rising to 27,000 more deaths by the summer of 2100.
4. More Cases of Lyme Disease
Between 2001 and 2014, both the distribution and the number of reported cases of Lyme disease increased in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. The number is set to increase as warmer temperatures impact both the winter and spring months, leading to an earlier annual onset of the Borrelia bacteria that causes the disease. Research indicates that the geographical distribution of ticks carrying the bacteria is “expected to expand to higher latitudes and elevations in the future.”
5. Increased Risks of Water-Related Illnesses
The nation’s waterways will be increasingly compromised as more frequent and intense precipitation leads to runoff from human and animal waste and agricultural activities, including the use of fertilizers. This increased runoff will contaminate more water, thereby increasing human and animal exposure to water-related illnesses through contaminated drinking water and recreational water, as well as fish and shellfish harvested in contaminated water.
6. Increased Exposure to Contaminated Food
Rising temperature and increased flooding, toxic runoff and drought will lead to increases in both the occurrence and transport of pathogens in agricultural environments, which in turn will increase food contamination risk and human exposure to certain pathogens and toxins.
The report specifically highlights an increased risk of ciguatera fish poisoning (CFP), a food-borne illness caused by eating fish contaminated with toxins produced by dinoflagellates, a type of aquatic microorganism. “There is a well-established link between warm sea surface temperatures and increased occurrence of CFP,” the report states, “and thus concern that global ocean warming will affect the risk of illness.”
There is also the issue of lowered nutritional value for some foods, as rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide can lower the nutritional value of most food crops. A 2014 study in the journal Nature found that increased C02 levels led to significant reductions in zinc, iron and protein in rice, wheat, soybeans and field peas.
7. The Largest Health Impact Will Be on Vulnerable Populations
The report warns that climate change will have the largest health impact on vulnerable populations, including “those with low incomes, some communities of color, limited English proficiency and immigrant groups, Indigenous peoples, children, pregnant women, older adults, vulnerable occupational groups, persons with disabilities and persons with preexisting or chronic medical conditions.”
The report underscores the increased lack of potable water for certain vulnerable populations:
Lack of consistent access to potable drinking water and inequities in exposure to contaminated water disproportionately affects the following populations: tribes and Alaska Natives, especially those in remote reservations or villages; residents of low-income rural subdivisions known as colonias along the U.S.-Mexico border; migrant farm workers; the homeless; and low-income communities not served by public water utilities—which can be urban, suburban or rural and some of which are predominately Hispanic or Latino and black or African American communities in certain regions of the country. In general, the heightened vulnerability of these populations primarily results from unequal access to adequate water and sewer infrastructure and various environmental, political, economic and social factors jointly create these disparities.
8. Increased Risk to Health-Related Services Infrastructure
The report points out that extreme weather and other events related to climate change will impact health by “disrupting infrastructure, including power, water, transportation and communication systems, that are essential to maintaining access to health care and emergency response services and safeguarding human health.”
Challenges to public health infrastructure and health care could include inadequate resources for monitoring and surveillance systems, research on health risks of climate change, management approaches, training of health care professionals and practitioners and technology development and deployment.
9. Increased Mental Health Impacts
The physical health impacts caused by climate change are becoming increasingly apparent. But climate change has mental health impacts as well. While experiencing extreme weather events like hurricanes and floods can be highly traumatizing, the existential threat and perception of climate change is also a trigger for a host of psychological stressors. The report states:
The effects of global climate change on mental health and well-being are integral parts of the overall climate-related human health impacts. Mental health consequences of climate change range from minimal stress and distress symptoms to clinical disorders, such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and suicidal thoughts. Other consequences include effects on the everyday life, perceptions and experiences of individuals and communities attempting to understand and respond appropriately to climate change and its implications.
The threat of climate change is a key psychological and emotional stressor. Individuals and communities are affected both by direct experience of local events attributed to climate change and by exposure to information regarding climate change and its effects. For example, public communication and media messages about climate change and its projected consequences can affect perceptions of physical and societal risks and consequently affect mental health and well-being. The interactive and cumulative nature of climate change effects on health, mental health and well-being are critical factors in understanding the overall consequences of climate change on human health.
Estimated Deaths and Billion-Dollar Losses from Extreme Events in the U.S. 2004-2013
Preparation for the Future Are in the Works, but Will It Be Enough?
While the report paints a bleak picture of the future health of American citizens, it also provides an opportunity and impetus to combat the threats posed by climate change. The Obama administration announced the following actions that respond to the challenges outlined by the Climate and Health Assessment:
- Expanding the scope of the President’s Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children to focus on the impacts of climate change on children’s health
- Developing K-12 educational materials on climate change and health
- A Climate-Ready Tribes and Territories Initiative, which will provide awards for tribal and territorial health departments to investigate, prepare for and adapt to the health effects of climate change
- An update to the Sustainable and Climate Resilient Health Care Facilities Toolkit, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services
- Designating May 23-27, as Extreme Heat Week, during which federal agencies will take a number of actions to work with community planners and public-health officials to enhance community preparedness for extreme heat events
While these are important initiatives, Howard Frumkin, dean of the University of Washington's public health school, who wasn't part of the report, said the government isn’t doing enough. "The report clearly establishes that climate change is a major threat to public health in the United States,” he said, but "there is a vast disconnect between the magnitude of the problem, as outlined by this report and the response of government health agencies."
Read the entire report.
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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
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Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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