I recently attended the Climate Change and Health conference held at the Carter Center in Atlanta and hosted by former Vice President Al Gore and the American Public Health Association. The goal of the conference was to lay out the scientific evidence that directly links climate change to adverse health events, such as infectious diseases, heat-related deaths, increases in asthma and allergies, and much, much more. The main takeaway of the conference was that the impact of climate change is not just bad weather, melting polar ice caps, and increases in sea level that may occur at some distant time in the future, rather,
it is clear that the environmental consequences of climate change are killing humans right now.
Before diving into the myriad ways this is happening, I thought it would be helpful to point out the irony of this conference taking place during a time when so much is being done to destroy the ability of the United States of America to respond to this extraordinary threat to human health not just here, but around the globe.
Washington’s war on the EPA
The day before this seminal conference, a little known Koch-funded Florida freshman Republican Representative, Matt Gaetz, released the text of his bill to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. It is a placeholder bill that contains little more than an intent to terminate the agency and a deadline to do so.
It is unlikely to pass, but it does serve as the clearest statement yet that the Republicans are waging a war on the governmental agency whose mission it is to
to protect human health and the environment—air, water, and land.
To add insult to injury, on February 17, the Senate confirmed Scott Pruit to lead the EPA despite being (or maybe because he is) an avowed foe of the agency who has sued it 14 times.
A few words about climate change
Former Vice President Al Gore opened his keynote address at the conference by reminding us what the late Carl Sagan said about our planet:
“This is a Goldilocks planet, not too hot like Venus, not too cold like Mars, but just right.”
He went on to say “Now that human beings have become the most powerful force of nature in affecting planetary conditions, we are pushing many people outside of the envelope in which we have evolved and in which we thrive.” There are places on earth now that are seeing increases in temperatures no longer compatible with human life.
And here is how we are doing it:
“We are using our atmosphere as an open sewer, dumping 110 million tons of man-made global warming pollution into it every 24 hours. The cumulative amount now traps as much heat every single day as would be released by 400,000 Hiroshima-class atomic bombs exploding every day.”
We are all experiencing what has been a profound change in climate in our lifetimes. I live in Northern California. Several years ago, I first noticed my tulip tree blooming in December after 30 years of blooming in February. And the harbinger of autumn in my yard, the fragrance of honeysuckle, now tickles my nose in July instead of September. But that is the subtle stuff and it is not dangerous to humans.
What is alarming is the magnitude of global warming that has already happened. Sixteen of the seventeen hottest years ever measured have occurred since 2001—the hottest year of all was last year. And, last year’s record heat was the third year in a row that we had an all-time record hot year. Climate change also affects humidity.
For some people, these statistics are a big yawn. They laughingly say global warming will bring them better weather or the accompanying sea level rise will change their landlocked home into a seaside property. Who cares? Some think this is only about plants, penguins, and polar bears…it’s a sacrifice we should make so that we can have cheap energy, more jobs, and a robust economy.
Each of those misunderstandings will be dealt with in later posts. But it is not what I want to focus on here because each of those consequences has elements of uncertainty; they may or may not take place in the future. Rather, I want to focus on harm to human health because it is happening right now. Climate change is already killing us.
Climate change and human health
There are many ways in which climate change is impacting human health. Here are some of the most important:
- Infectious diseases. Many of the microbes that cause human disease thrive in hot, humid climates. This is why they are more common in the tropics. What we are seeing now is that higher temperatures are driving some of the vectors of infectious diseases, such as mosquitoes that transmit diseases such as Zika and dengue, into new territories, including parts of the U.S. where they have not been seen before. Warmer climates also increase their reproductions rates and the frequency of them biting humans for their blood meals. There are a number of other ways in which climate change increases infectious disease outbreaks that you can learn about here. But suffice it to say that even if the spread of infectious disease was the only impact on human health, it would be bad enough. Just think back to how you felt when you first learned that Zika was now in the United States.
- Extreme-weather related events. Extreme weather, such as the storms drenching Northern California this winter and heat waves in Australia, Pakistan, India, and even the U.S., are not just an inconvenience, they are deadly. According to conference presenter, Dr. Kim Knowlton from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University,
“Heat waves…are the #1 cause of U.S. weather fatalities on average over the last 30 years, causing more deaths than tornadoes, floods, and lightening.”
She went on to say that there are between 670-1,300 heat-related deaths annually in recent years, and 65,000 heat-related emergency department visits in the U.S./year. Over 700 people died in the 1995 Chicago heat wave; a 2003 European heat wave led to 70,000 excess deaths; and a 2006 California heat wave saw ~16,000 more ER visits than expected.
Mark Keim, MD, MBA, Founder of DisasterDoc, also a speaker, showed evidence that the annual incidence of natural disasters appears to be rising worldwide. One category of natural disaster—those related to extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and heat waves—have accounted for 41% of all disaster-related deaths between 1964-2013, exceeded only by geologic disasters (e.g., earthquakes). Although we usually think of floods as a major cause of disaster-related deaths, in fact, extreme drought accounts for about 60% of climate-related deaths compared to 35% for floods. Storms account for about 5% of these deaths.
- Failures of nutrition. In the U.S. and other “lands of plenty,” we rarely think about crop failures anymore unless they lead to big jumps in prices that catch our attention, like the recent jump in the price of olive oil. But, Dr. Sam Myers, Senior Research Scientist at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, points out that failures of nutrition drive more deaths and disability around the world than any other risk factor. And, climate change is threatening the quantities and quality of food we produce as well as the locations of where it is produced. Changes in CO2 levels, temperature, precipitation, pests, pathogens and pollinators (e.g., bees), and heat-related labor issues are all threatening crop yields and even nutritional value of those plant-based foods, particularly iron, zinc, and protein. As Dr. Myers pointed out, ten years ago when the conversation about the impacts of climate change first got serious, we weren’t anticipating that changes in the nutritional value of food would be one of them. How many other unanticipated effects are going to surprise us as climate change progresses?
I have purposely tried to focus on health impacts that we are seeing today instead of sharing projections into the future for two reasons:
- The future projections, as it is true of all projections, are as yet uncertain
- It would scare the bejezzus out of you
Climate change is real. Climate change is harming human health right now. Our politicians are letting ideology get in the way of needed action. We can’t let that happen.
Be sure to listen to my American Journal of Managed Care Interview with Georges Benejamin, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association, co-sponsor of the Climate Change and Health meeting.