Conservatives, public health experts weigh in on climate risks

Source: Umair Irfan, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, April 8, 2016

Climate change poses an urgent public health risk, the White House announced yesterday in a sweeping new federal report the administration touted as the most exhaustive assessment ever done of the links between rising global temperatures and disease.

The report, “The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment,” formally unveiled at the White House, finds that devastating heat, more miserable allergies and air that’s harder to breathe loom in the future if greenhouse gases continue to rise.

“The assessment finds that every American is vulnerable to the health impacts of climate change,” said White House science adviser John Holdren, unveiling the study. “Some are more vulnerable than others.”

The report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, more than three years in the making, echoes past climate and health assessments, but with greater scientific certainty, according to Holdren.

“This is a much more thoroughly peer-reviewed study than the typical journal article,” he said.

U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy called it “the most comprehensive scientific foundation ever generated about how climate change is affecting health.”

According to the new assessment, increases in heat-related deaths would more than offset any reduction in fatalities spurred by warmer winters. The report notes that there is robust evidence linking climate change to more frequent and intense heat waves (ClimateWire, March 14).

Some of the emerging health consequences of climate change receive mention, as well. The assessment devotes a whole chapter to mental health issues as a consequence of extreme weather and displacement (ClimateWire, June 18, 2014).

Nutrition is another growing hot spot in climate research. Though carbon dioxide is an important nutrient for plants, an increased concentration in the atmosphere can cause crops to mature before they have enough time to produce enough protein and leach nutrients from the soil to meet dietary needs (ClimateWire, Sep. 20, 2015).

This accelerated growth also preferentially boosts fast-growing plants like ragweed, directly leading to increased pollen. With warming, allergy seasons have grown in duration, and with more CO2, pollen counts have climbed higher (ClimateWire, Nov. 10, 2014).

Forget the polar bears — pay attention to the asthma

The new health and climate assessment comes while the Obama administration’s signature climate change regulation, the Clean Power Plan, is on hold pending legal challenges. The rule’s reason for existence is protecting human health.

Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act says U.S. EPA must “develop regulations for categories of sources which cause or significantly contribute to air pollution which may endanger public health or welfare.”

Joining Holdren and McCarthy, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy acknowledged that he is one of the newer additions to the climate change policy team.

“Ten or 15 or 20 years ago, if we had a discussion like this on climate change, it’s unlikely that a surgeon general would be present,” he said. “But the reason that I’m here today is because the science has told us that climate change poses a serious risk to human health.”

From President Obama making the case for the Clean Power Plan from a children’s hospital two years ago to this week’s study, the focus on health heralds a change in messaging on climate from polar bears on melting ice floes to asthmatic children, allergy sufferers and lurking infections.

However, some analysts have cautioned that there are many moving parts when it comes to human health, so the causes and solutions to problems like more heat strokes and longer allergy seasons may not be as clear-cut as the administration thinks.

“It’s very forward-thinking, especially in terms of health and disease impacts,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, speaking of the new report. “My one comment is that what I’ve been seeing is that in areas where climate change is influencing patterns of vector-borne disease, it’s not the only thing going on.”

Conservatives call for adaptation

In cases like the recent detection of malaria in Europe, extreme poverty and the massive refugee influx from the Syrian civil war are at play, as well.

“If, in fact, the biggest factor is the human migration from conflict rather than from climate change, it changes how you approach the problem,” Hotez said.

Another factor to consider is that Americans aren’t sitting idly by as the climate changes. In the United States, sensitivity to temperature is actually going down as more people get air conditioners and live in better environments.

“They do mention that it occurs, but they seem to feature more of the findings that show a large increase in mortality,” said Paul “Chip” Knappenberger, associate director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute.

In fact, he argued, more frequent and intense heat waves may desensitize people to the effects of high temperatures. “Heat-related mortality occurs where people aren’t expecting it,” Knappenberger said. “As it happens more often, people get more used to it.”

Most of this would come as people adapt to a different climate regime, learning to recognize and treat problems like heatstroke and dehydration while building cooling shelters for the impoverished.

“If I were advising the government, I would definitely put adaptation very near the top of my list in response to climate change,” Knappenberger said.

For his part, Holdren did acknowledge that some degree of warming is underway regardless of how much the world shrinks its carbon footprint. One way of mitigating climate change is to limit the extent of the problems relating to health.

“We can’t avoid all of them,” Holdren said. “Climate change is underway, and no matter what we do, it can’t be stopped overnight.”