By Reynard Loki
The Earth's rapidly changing climate due to human activity has ravaged the planet in numerous ways, causing melting glaciers and ice sheets, heat waves, droughts, wildfires, deadly hurricanes, species extinction and ecosystem losses. But climate change may also be impacting us on a very personal level that many of us don't even realize: our health.
According to a recent report published by the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, climate change is becoming a serious public health enemy.
"The changes in our climate are creating conditions that harm human health through extreme weather events, reduced air and water quality, intense heat waves, spread of vector-borne diseases and other mechanisms," said Dr. Mona Sarfaty, the director of MSCCH, in a statement. The consortium represents more than 400,000 American physicians—more than half of all U.S. physicians. Many of these medical professionals, Sarfaty said, "know firsthand the harmful health effects of climate change on patients."
Elevated #Cancer Rates Linked to Environmental Quality https://t.co/kFUtBp3bKN @ewg @SierraClub @EnvDefenseFund @billmckibben @MarkRuffalo— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1494261950.0
Sarfaty, who also serves as the director of the program for climate and health at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, highlighted groups that are particularly at risk: "While climate change threatens the health of every American, some people are more vulnerable and are most likely to be harmed, including: infants and children; pregnant women; older adults; people with disabilities; people with preexisting or chronic medical conditions, including mental illnesses; people with limited means; indigenous peoples and those throughout the United States who face regional vulnerabilities."
The report highlighted three specific ways climate change harms human health:
1. Direct health harms, including respiratory ailments worsened by air pollution and longer allergy seasons, as well as injuries and deaths caused by extreme weather events like floods, droughts, heatwaves and wildfires.
2. The proliferation of diseases through insects carrying Lyme disease or Zika virus, and through contaminated water and food.
3. Mental health effects, particularly among survivors of extreme weather events, who can experience depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and even increases in suicidal thoughts and behavior.
Unfortunately, President Trump isn't listening to these doctors. The president's proposed 2018 budget includes deep cuts to the EPA, hampering its ability to protect the country from the impacts of climate change, and essentially handing corporations a pass to pillage and destroy the natural environment.
"The amazing progress made by the U.S. EPA over the past 47 years stands at risk, and any reductions in budget or staffing will only further cripple environmental protection efforts, while sending a clear signal to polluters to further contaminate the Chesapeake Bay, Great Lakes, Puget Sound, as well as our rivers, streams and wetlands," said John O'Grady, president of American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, in a press statement.
In another anti-health, anti-environment move, the Trump administration last month violated the Clean Air Act when it suspended critical protections against methane leaks and other dangerous air pollution from the oil and gas industry.
"In its haste to do favors for its polluter cronies, the Trump EPA has broken the law," said Meleah Geertsma, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which filed a lawsuit against the EPA for the decision. "The Trump administration does not have unlimited power to put people's health in jeopardy with unchecked, unilateral executive action like this. Stopping methane leaks is a no-brainer—avoiding wasted gas, creating jobs, fighting climate change and cutting cancer-causing pollution all at once."
Scientists have been warning the public about the possible negative impacts of climate change on human health for several years. The federal National Climate Assessment, which was released in 2014, warned that "climate change threatens human health and well-being in many ways, including impacts from increased extreme weather events, wildfire, decreased air quality and illnesses transmitted by food, water and diseases carriers such as mosquitoes and ticks."
According to the MSCCH report, only about one in three Americans is aware that people in the U.S. are being harmed now by climate change. But, as the report states, "based on several surveys, two out of every three doctors think climate change has direct relevance right now to patient care."
It has become abundantly clear that we must take a harder look at the specific ways our health is negatively impacted by a rapidly changing climate—and do something about it.
1. Air Pollution
The World Health Organization estimates that around seven million people worldwide die prematurely every year from lung and heart disease and cancer due to pollution. This pollution is mainly caused by small particulate matter emitted from the myriad the ways we combust fossil fuels. Inhaling tiny liquid or solid particles can lead to a variety of health problems, including cancer, heart disease, stroke and respiratory issues. In particular, ground-based ozone, produced by emissions from power stations, factories and motor vehicle exhaust, can worsen symptoms for asthma, bronchitis or emphysema. Scientists have even started calculating the impact of coal-fired pizza ovens.
In the U.S., power plants are the biggest source of carbon pollution, accounting for nearly a third of total greenhouse gas emissions, followed by transportation (26 percent) and industry (21 percent). Estimates vary, but the number of premature deaths in the U.S. due to the small particles pumped into the air in power plant emissions is somewhere between 7,500 and 52,000. "That's huge," wrote Jay Apt, co-director of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center. "It is roughly comparable to the 40,000 people [who] died in car crashes in 2016."
"I see the effects of climate change on children here already," said Dr. Aparna Bole, a pediatrician at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' environmental health executive committee. "Here in Ohio we have high rates of pediatric asthma, so the poor air quality days that we see more and more of are a direct risk to children."
Extreme weather events linked to climate change are also impacting the quality of air. In 2008, a wildfire in North Carolina, ignited during the state's worst-ever drought, burned more than 45,000 acres of land. Researchers found that people living in counties affected by the fire's smoke plume had a 50 percent increase in trips to emergency departments from respiratory illness like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumonia and bronchitis.
"Blazing forests are just as damaging to human health as they are to homes and neighborhoods," John Meredith, an emergency room physician at East Carolina University, wrote in the MSCCH report. "Increasing temperatures and more frequent droughts caused by climate change are set to increase the number of wildfires in the U.S.—and worldwide. It's clear that not only our lungs, but also our hearts, are at serious risk."
The World Health Organization has raised the warning flag on dangerous air, saying that air pollution now poses a more severe public health threat than HIV or Ebola, and pointing out that 80 percent of all urban areas have unhealthy levels of air pollution. The agency estimated that climate change will be the root cause of some 240,000 deaths every year by 2030.
2. Proliferation of Disease
Historically, most incidents of Lyme disease happen in the Northeast, the normal range of the pathogen-carrying ticks. But as global warming increases the air temperature, those ticks can become active earlier, with their geographic range spreading to the Midwest. The geographic spread of several mosquito-borne diseases, including West Nile, Zika and dengue fever, is also impacted by the rise in surface air temperature. A 2016 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that the tick that carries Lyme disease has been reported in 45.7 percent of U.S. counties, up from 30 percent in 1998.
In addition, some chronic diseases are worsened by extreme heat, with the young and the elderly at the most risk. The European heat wave during the summer of 2003 killed more than 70,000 people; particularly vulnerable were those with chronic heart or lung disease.
A 2016 study conducted by the University of Colorado found that the worldwide increase in heat waves may be linked to the kidney disease epidemic impacting workers who are increasingly exposed to extreme heat and the resulting dehydration. "There's evidence that long periods of heat waves have increased more significantly with climate change; when it's extremely hot the risk for kidney damage begins to really become evident," said senior study author Dr. Richard Johnson.
The consortium's conclusions about the climate-related spread of infectious disease are supported by comparing the incidence rates today versus two decades ago. According to the CDC, whooping cough cases have more than doubled since the late 1990s; incidences of Hib disease, caused by the bacteria Haemophilus influenzae, have more than doubled since 2000; and measles cases have steadily grown since 2003.
"Across the country, doctors are seeing more patients struck ill by serious diseases like Lyme disease and West Nile fever," Nitin Damle, president of the American College of Physicians, wrote in the consortium's report. "Because of the changing climate and the spread of vectors, we expect that Americans will continue to face new diseases and familiar diseases in new places."
Many of those who experience extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, heat waves and hurricanes also experience stress and serious mental health issues, from anxiety and depression to post-traumatic stress disorder and increases in suicidal thoughts and behavior.
Some coping mechanisms, such as alcohol or drug abuse, only add to the health risk for these sufferers. During extreme weather events, children in particular are at risk, as many must undergo the stress and anxiety caused by a prolonged separation from their parents. Forty percent of doctors surveyed for the report said mental health is a specific health harm related to climate change.
Anyone who is exposed to a climate-related natural disaster is at risk of experiencing mental health issues, but the report's authors note, "people at higher risk include children, the elderly, pregnant women and women in general, those with preexisting mental illness, the poor, homeless and first responders. Farmers and other people who rely on the natural environment for their livelihoods are also at higher risk."
President Trump: Are You Listening to the Advice of Doctors?
In response to these increasing threats to public health, the consortium has called for "concerted action" to "reduce heat-trapping pollution by reducing energy waste and accelerating the inevitable transition to clean renewable energy."
Sarfaty joined many environmentalists and public health advocates in criticizing President Trump's recent executive order which was intended to promote the exploitation of the nation's "vast energy resources," saying the order "threatens progress toward addressing the risks, and doctors across the country are already seeing the harms to human health associated with the resulting degradation of our life-sustaining environment."
"Here's the message from America's doctors on climate change: it's not only happening in the Arctic Circle, it's happening here," she said. "It's not only a problem for us in 2100, it's a problem now. And it's not only hurting polar bears, it's hurting us."
"The science is very clear and there's some real opportunity to impact patients here and now," said Bole. "If we're serious about helping people to be healthier, we can't ignore issues like climate and energy policy."
Unfortunately for the American people, that's exactly what President Trump is doing.
Reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Alexandra Rowles
Oregano is a fragrant herb that's best known as an ingredient in Italian food.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6bd9fda1316965a9ba24dd60fd9cc34d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/3KaMnkmf0tc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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