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9 Ways Climate Change Is Making Us Sick

Climate

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 Obama administration has released a major new report on how manmade global warming is making Americans sicker. Photo credit: UHCAN

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.”

The annual incidence of Lyme disease is calculated as the number of new cases per 100,000 people. The graph is based on cases that local and state health departments report to the Center for Disease Control's national disease tracking system. Image: EPA; Data: Center for Disease Control 2015

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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.

Precipitation and temperature changes affect fresh and marine water quantity and quality primarily through urban, rural and agricultural runoff. Photo credit: GlobalChange.gov

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

This figure provides 10-year estimates of fatalities related to extreme events from 2004 to 2013, as well as estimated economic damages from 58 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion. These statistics are indicative of the human and economic costs of extreme weather events over this time period. Climate change will alter the frequency, intensity and geographic distribution of some of these extremes, which has consequences for exposure to health risks from extreme events. Photo credit: GlobalChange.gov

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:

  • 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

  • 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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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

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An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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