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Climate Change and Public Health

Climate change is bringing with it a host of public health challenges. Experts see hope for making the necessary adjustments.
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The devastation that Hurricane Katrina wrought on New Orleans left the nation wondering how a storm could do so much damage; whether the initial chaos or the ongoing tragedies could have been prevented, or at least limited; and when and where to expect another weather-related catastrophe.

Sadly, Katrina could be a harbinger of things to come, experts say, as the Earth warms and severe storms become more common. Besides the broken levees, battered homes and tattered lives, Katrina’s fury offered a glimpse of some of the health problems that could come with climate change: thousands dead, with diseases percolating in the fetid waters of a devastated city populated by distraught and depressed survivors.

These potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change don’t get as much attention as the apocalyptic predictions of rising sea levels, but health experts say we need to try to prevent and prepare for them, given the overwhelming scientific consensus that the Earth is warming, as well as the litany of impacts already being felt.

The health impacts of climate change “are going to be quite large in some areas, and they may be quite devastating,” Kristie Ebi, a consultant who conducts research on the impacts of climate change and how to prepare for them, said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston last week. She has worked with the World Health Organization, the United Nations Development Programme and the U.S. Agency for International Development on efforts to help poor countries adapt to the effects of a warming planet.

Climate change will exacerbate myriad health and safety problems around the globe, scientists say. Now regarded as tropical maladies, such diseases as dengue fever are expected to expand their ranges as they creep into formerly temperate environments. Storms, droughts, wildfires and heat waves will become more common — and more severe. The air in cities will become more polluted, and allergy sufferers likely will be wheezier and sneezier as plants produce more pollen in response to rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

For communities living close to the land, the effects of climate change could be particularly brutal. Crops are expected to be hit by lengthy droughts and weakened by pests and diseases that will expand their ranges as the Earth warms. Also, all of the world’s major crops have been shown to decrease their protein levels in response to increased carbon dioxide, so feeding the planet will become an increasing challenge in the decades and centuries to come.

The United States is lagging behind Europe in terms of research into the impacts of climate change, Ebi says — research that’s vital for public health agencies and other groups to try to prevent or at least prepare for the health consequences of global warming.

Young people — college students in particular — are demonstrating an encouraging interest in the subject, according to Patrick Kinney, a Columbia University researcher who studies the human health effects of climate change.

“The education of the new leaders is happening,” he said at the AAAS meeting, but unfortunately “the research isn’t.” More effort needs to go into understanding how climate change may affect health and into developing possible scenarios “so we can understand what we need to prepare for and adapt to,” Kinney said.

Surveillance is also vital if we are to understand and attempt to address health impacts, experts say. It will help scientists refine their predictions and provide warnings of emerging problems. Real-time surveillance is needed “so we can catch unexpected phenomena,” said Howard Frumkin, director of the National Center for Environmental Health,Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaking at the AAAS meeting.

Public health officials and scientists see several strategies for limiting and dealing with the health impacts of climate change. Efforts to stall global warming will of course help prevent related health crises, and there’s plenty that can be done to prepare for predictable effects: Reliable power supplies must be established in areas where deadly heat waves are likely to strike so air conditioning can be kept running in public refuges; generators and other vital support systems should be moved out of the basements of hospitals in flood-prone places; and the public should be educated about how to avoid illnesses like West Nile virus and Lyme disease, which are expected to become more widespread as temperatures rise.

Another effective way of preparing for climate change, Frumkin said, is to create a healthier society that’s more able to weather health challenges brought on by climate change.

Many of the actions people are being urged to take to limit global warming will help safeguard not just the health of the planet but the health of human communities, Frumkin said — benefits that should be “trumpeted” as inspiration for people to make personal changes.

If we walk more, Frumkin pointed out, we don’t just save some carbon emissions; we improve our physical health, we feel less depressed and we reduce our chances of dying or being injured on the road. If we plant trees in cities, they don’t just suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere; they offer relief from fierce heat. If we eat less meat, we not only reduce our reliance on the relatively inefficient food production methods used to raise beef and other livestock; we also improve our health by reducing our consumption of animal fats.

The public needs to know how much of a difference they can make, Frumkin said, rather than just being bombarded with apocalyptic predictions and accusatory calls to action that may produce little more than “despair, disengagement and disillusionment.” Positive messages will help empower communities to prepare for — and perhaps lessen the health impacts of — climate change, he said.

Public health leaders and policymakers should take heart, Frumkin added, that thorough research, careful planning and extensive monitoring will go a long way toward responding to the challenges ahead. “We did this to address smoking; we did this to address HIV,” he said. “This is what we need to do to address climate change.”

New Zealand-born and California-based freelance writer Anna Davison specializes in covering science and the environment.