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Climate change poses wide-ranging dangers to public health, experts warn

REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
People marching through Times Square during a rally against climate change last Sunday.

By midcentury, Midwestern cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul may become popular destinations for “environmental refugees” fleeing extreme weather on the East and West Coasts, according to some experts.

But that doesn’t mean, of course, that Minnesota is not going to have its own serious climate-change challenges — including ones related to health.

For as a paper published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) points out, the number of extremely hot days — ones with temperatures over 90 degrees — in Midwestern cities is likely to triple by 2046.

That increased heat, along with other consequences of climate change, will have wide-ranging effects on public health throughout the U.S. and the world, the authors of the paper warn.

Below is a summary of what those authors, led by Dr. Jonathan Patz of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, believe some of those effects are likely to be. The scientists’ predictions were made after analyzing more than 13 climates models and 56 previous studies.

Heat-related disorders. Air-conditioning has dramatically reduced, but not eliminated, heat-related deaths and illness in the United States. Between 1999 and 2009, certified heat-related deaths averaged 658 per year in the U.S. — more than from all other weather events combined. (The actual number of heat-related deaths is much greater, but if, say, a fatal heart attack is triggered by excessive heat, the death certificate is likely to cite “cardiac arrest,” not temperature, as the cause of death.)

Global warming is going to push those numbers up — significantly. It’s estimated, for example, that Chicago may see more than 2,000 extra heat-wave-related deaths per year by the end of this century. People who are elderly, living in poverty, socially isolated or have an underlying mental illness will be particularly at risk. And, yes, the authors of the JAMA paper do acknowledge that global warming will also mean fewer cold-weather-related deaths, but it’s uncertain if the lives saved in winter will outnumber those lost during the extended summer heat waves.

Respiratory disorders. The number of people suffering from respiratory disorders, including asthma, will also increase. Hot weather makes ground-level ozone (smog) worse, and in many regions of the U.S. the smog will be further fed by an increasing number of wildfires. Rising temperatures will also mean longer allergy seasons. Since 1995, the ragweed season in mid-North America has already lengthened by as much as 13 to 27 days north of the 44th parallel (which, of course, is almost all of Minnesota).

Infectious diseases. Warming temperatures will mean that disease-carrying ticks and mosquitoes will spread and thrive in areas that were once too cold for them. Lyme disease, for example, is expected to expand into Canada. In some areas of the country, climate change will bring heavier rainfall and flooding, thus also increasing the risk of gastrointestinal illnesses caused by various bacteria, noroviruses and enteroviruses.

Food insecurity. Climate change is projected to lower global food production by 2 percent per decade, even as demand increases by 14 percent. By midcentury, food prices are expected to rise rapidly, placing poor people in the U.S. and throughout the world at even greater risk of chronic hunger and undernutrition.

Mental health disorders. Floods, heat waves and wildfires — all of which are predicted to become more common as climate change intensifies during the coming years  — are associated with an increased incidence of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression. Slow-moving disasters, such as years of drought, are also known to threaten mental health.

A call to action

Despite their sobering findings, Patz and his colleagues don’t want their paper to be viewed as a doom-and-gloom document, but rather as a call to action.

“Climate change is an enormous public health challenge because it affects our health through multiple pathways,” Patz said in a statement released with the study. “But if the risks are so interdependent, so, too, are the opportunities.”

Here in the United States, those opportunities include increasing the use of wind, solar, wave and geothermal energy, redesigning our communities to encourage “active transportation” (walking and cycling) and decreasing our meat consumption to reduce polluting emissions associated with livestock production.

Patz presented the paper Monday at the Civil Society Event on Action in Climate Change and Health in New York City. You can read it in full through the JAMA website.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 09/24/2014 - 12:49 pm.

    On climate and health

    There is general consensus that climate change can have some very serious implications for public health, as I said in a recent Community Voices column.

  2. Submitted by Rolf Westgard on 09/25/2014 - 04:07 am.

    climate change versus global warming

    We no longer hear the term global warming; instead it is climate change. The reason for avoiding global warming is that there hasn’t been any in the 21st Century.
    Climate change allows every storm, flood, drought, etc to be blamed on carbon dioxide emissions. Warren Buffet, CEO of some major casualty insurance companies, noted recently that their rates have not increased, and aren’t expected to increase, because there has been no increase in unusual weather events.
    Atlantic hurricane coverage has been pure profit as no Force 3 hurricane has hit the US for 9 years. Force 1 Sandy damaged all the stuff we put on flood plains which Buffet has sense enough to avoid insuring.

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 09/25/2014 - 07:45 am.

      The President has his own version of the truth

      The President’s words to the UN Climate Change Summit, posted on on Tuesday

      “In America, the past decade has been our hottest on record. Along our eastern coast, the city of Miami now floods at high tide. In our west, wildfire season now stretches most of the year. In our heartland, farms have been parched by the worst drought in generations, and drenched by the wettest spring in our history. A hurricane left parts of this great city dark and underwater.”

    • Submitted by Todd Adler on 09/25/2014 - 09:54 pm.

      Climate change versus global warming

      The term was changed to appease conservatives, who got worked up about the first term. Plus it more accurately reflects the situation we’re in.

      I would beg to disagree with Mr. Westgard’s position on climate change as the evidence is very clear that we are indeed dealing with radical climate shifts planet-wide. He selectively picks a few facts and then tries to use them to bolster a spurious position. Looking at the whole position can only lead one to the logical conclusion that climate change is indeed real.

      • Submitted by Steve Rose on 09/26/2014 - 09:31 am.

        “Selectively Picks”

        That perfectly describes the words of our President on every point that he made in the quote I provided above.

        For instance, “Along our eastern coast, the city of Miami now floods at high tide.”

        1) EASTERN COAST: Yes Miami is on the eastern coast, about 80 miles for Cuba. By associating Miami with the whole eastern coast, the alleged threat against Miami is inferred on all eastern coast cities, like Boston, New York, D,C.

        2) MIAMI: Did Miami flood? No, portions of Miami Beach, actually a different City.

        3) NOW: Now as in a new and permanent condition, or now as in today and for the the next week or so? The way it was stated, you might think the former while it is actually the latter.

        “Because the moon is closest to Earth in the fall, its gravitational pull is stronger and the tides are pushed higher. Rising sea levels and the possibility of a tropical system can make it worse.In addition, “If we have strong east winds or a low-pressure area, that pushes water up the east coast of Florida,” said meteorologist Stephen Konarik of the National Weather Service in Miami.”

        “Three to five times per year, the moon lines up with the Earth and the sun to intensify the gravitational pull and create “spring” tides, so called because of the potential for the tides to spring up. Then, in the fall, the moon – because of its elliptical orbit – teams up with the sun to create even stronger gravitational effects, said Eric Vandernoot, astronomy coordinator at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.”

        Not a word from these Florida meteorologist regarding global warming, climate change, nor climate disruption

  3. Submitted by Lela Alexandra on 09/26/2014 - 03:25 am.

    Climate Change is dangerous to Health

    Hi, I think this true. Knowing that any change needs an adjustment. It will be most likely to a more intricate matter when it comes to our health. I agree also that one effect will be on our respiratory because of the rising temperatures. For this, I think we also need to take necessary prevention before prevalent conditions continue. Let us just hope and pray that we will be able to surpass all of these that causes health dangers. Thanks for coming up with this kind of article for our own awareness.

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