Why Climate Change Is Worsening Public Health Problems
By Chelsey Kivland and Anne Sosin
Around the world, the health care debate often revolves around access.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, recently announced, "All roads lead to universal health coverage." Discussions for how to translate this vision into a road map for action is central to the agenda of the WHO's executive board meeting this week in Geneva.
Yet focusing on access is not enough. The imperative for access must be paired with a frank acknowledgment that climate change is making communities around the world more vulnerable to ill health. A 2017 commission of The Lancet, a leading health research journal, tracked the effects of climate change on health and found evidence of harms "far worse than previously understood."
As a global health professional (Sosin) and a cultural anthropologist (Kivland), we have witnessed how the global exchange of health technology, expertise and aid has contributed to dramatic gains in the delivery of health care in Haiti and other settings, especially around infectious diseases. Yet climate change threatens to undermine the health gains in vulnerable communities across the globe.
As firsthand witnesses to sharp health disparities globally, we argue that world leaders need to insist that any health care strategy must address the social and environmental vulnerabilities driving poor health in the first place.
The Health Burden of Climate Change
Climate scientists argue that global warming is exacerbating extreme weather events. And natural disasters are often the source of health crises, particularly in fragile settings. Consider the case of Puerto Rico. The official death toll of the storm was estimated at 64; however, later reports have estimated that the disruption of health care services contributed to upwards of 1,052 deaths on the island.
Lagging recovery efforts have exposed how natural disasters deepen the relationship between socio-economic inequality and health disparity. In Puerto Rico, where poverty rates are double those of the poorest continental state, people already struggling with illnesses such as diabetes and kidney disease have seen their conditions worsen as the long-crumbling health care system is overwhelmed with patients and neglected by the mainland government.
The health impacts of the storms may persist even beyond the restoration of health services.
Hurricane Harvey exposed the toxic afterlife of disastrous storms. Storm damage to 40 industrial sites released chemical toxins linked to cellular damage, cancer and other long-term health problems. As The Lancet's Commission on Pollution and Health found, air, water and soil pollution is now the leading environmental cause of death and disability, accounting for more than 9 million deaths annually. These numbers will only grow in the face of climate-induced disasters.
Restoring health care systems is vital for these communities, but it will merely treat the symptoms and not the causes of post-disaster illness. We believe that policymakers must address the link between environmental and health crises.
Haiti as Case Study
We have learned this lesson from our work in Haiti. Once a death sentence in rural Haiti, today HIV is largely controlled thanks to widespread access to antiretroviral therapy. The prevalence of the disease in pregnant women fell from 6 percent to just over 2 percent in the 10-year period from 1993 to 2003. Likewise, vaccines against cholera, introduced in 2015, have proven to be up to 90 percent effective against the disease.
However, even as vaccine coverage continues to grow, the population remains at risk for cholera and other emergent threats. Only 58 percent of the population has access to safe water and only 28 percent has access to basic sanitation. These conditions worsen in the wake of natural disasters. Hurricane Mathew in 2016 triggered spikes in cholera and other waterborne diseases, especially diarrhea, the second leading cause of death among children.
Hitting the one region of Haiti that had not yet been denuded of trees and vegetation, Hurricane Matthew seemed to complete the destruction of the country's food systems.
Since the late 1980s, the erosion of waterways, loss of habitats and destruction of agricultural land have fueled the importation of cheap, processed foods. Rice and pasta have replaced a diet once rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The high-sugar, low-nutrition foods contribute to the dual health burdens of obesity and under-nutrition.
These trends are ongoing, but they are exacerbated by the disastrous shocks of extreme weather events, which are made more likely by climate change. As Hurricane Matthew came ashore, it decimated fishing villages and tore through farming communities, killing livestock, uprooting crops and denuding backyard fruit trees. The United Nations estimated that 800,000 people suffered food shortages.
Closing the Vulnerability Gap
Haiti is often cast as behind the global curve. But as a reflection of the dangerous intersection of climate change, poverty and ill health, it is in fact predictive of what is to come in the rest of the world. Haiti teaches us that our own health is not bound up simply in the present decisions we make about health care systems but rather more broadly situated in the changing natural environment.
Closing the access gap has been a long battle and the gains cannot be underestimated. Yet the challenge ahead is even more daunting. Whereas increasing access has centered on extending health care technologies to underserved populations, closing the vulnerability gap will require approaches that extend beyond the health sector and national borders.
In the past year, the health care debate in the U.S. has centered on attempts to limit or expand access to care. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has left the Paris agreement and unraveled environmental protections for national and transnational corporations—with little resistance from health advocates. We believe that leaders must recognize that environmental policy is health policy. Rollbacks of environmental regulations will cause far greater consequences on health, in the U.S. and globally, than any health care bill.
Fixing health care systems while we undermine the environmental conditions for health are a textbook example of what Haitians describe as "lave men, swiyè atè"—washing your hands but drying them in the dirt.
3 Ways #ClimateChange Affects Our Health Today https://t.co/ezKI1wbytd @350 @climatehawk1 @foe_us @SierraClub @MichaelEMann @greenpeaceusa— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1509630195.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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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.
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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>
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