Presentation Recap: Climate Change & Public Health 2013

If you didn’t make it to last night’s event…

Dr. Clapp, Professor Emeritus Boston University School of Public Health and member of National Physicians for Social Responsibility among other accolades, reminded us of the realities of global temperature rise and its direct impacts on the environment and health. While this post will not be an exact replica of his talk, it will serve to highlight a few valuable points.

Global temperature rise is expected to be at least 1.5 degrees CELSIUS by the year 2100. We can expect more extreme weather events, a reduction in albedo and sea level rises between 6 and 38 inches. (See IPCC 5th Assessment) For demonstrable evidence of the melting Alaskan tundra, he pointed to the sinking oil pipeline and ensuing damage from such shifts. By way of ice core analysis, we know that 200,000 years ago, global temperatures were 5ºC LESS than now.

The areas of climate change – temperature increases, precipitation change and sea level rise – impact several health related areas: altered food andcrop production will lead to some regions experiencing malnutrition and hunger; extreme weather will lead to a related increase in deaths, injuries and psychological disorders; thermal extremes will also lead to an increase in heat and cold related illnesses and deaths; worsened air pollution will exacerbate acute and chronic respiratory conditions; and finally, an increase in vectors and infectious parasites will yield greater outbreaks of infectious and waterborne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.

Dan Ferber, a freelance journalist who covers science, technology, health and the environment was also present and he illuminated on the conditions of Mt. Kenya in Nairobi, Kenya, where the temperature increase has led to the population of malaria-carrying mosquitoes to inhabit higher altitudes. This has led to severe impact on the highland population that has not developed the defenses that the neighboring people of the lower lands have developed. He articulated that this and other stories can be read in his recent publication, Changing Planet, Changing Health, co-authored with the late Dr. Paul Epstein, dear colleague of our guest speaker.

We were also reminded that Hurricane Sandy was a year ago, come October 30th – a hurricane whose diameter spread 1,100 miles and whose cost came second only to Katrina, at $71 billion dollars. 285 people in 7 different countries died. Anecdotally, Al Gore is no longer criticized for exaggerating storm surge flooding of the NYC transit system.

And lest we forget, the 3 sisters – Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, along with 23 other storms and 12 hurricanes all occurred in 2005. In Louisiana and Missouri, deaths reached 1300 and costs reached nearly $100 billion in property damage alone. Emergency responders learned many lessons from that event – many that we too could learn from, including such seemingly innocuous things as having battery operated walkie talkies so communication can persist in the absence of electricity and cell towers.

First responders continue to learn by testing desktop scenarios, creating and implementing emergency shelters for heat and cold temperatures, and bettering their response capabilities.

We are still left to address reductions in carbon emissions. Let it be said, Bavaria, a mere region in Germany, outnumbers the entire United States in solar energy implementation. We are encouraged to look at policy choices, cap and trade options, carbon taxes, becoming a green community, smart grids and net metering, enabling bike transportation and overall energy conservation.

Many questions were asked and it was underscored the interest re-insurers have in addressing climate change and policy, lest they are bankrupted in due course of business. Yes, we can expect increases in disparities between haves and have-nots regarding health and nutrition. And while the U.S. has not seen food price related riots, other regions have. Food costs will go up. Investing in your CSA and local suppliers will not only cut down on fossil fuel consumption related to transport, it will support local biodiversity which in turn leads to more resilient strains and more resilient (and hopefully abundant!) food supplies.

We are reminded that the majority of antibiotics go to livestock, who are raised in such close quarters that disease and infection spreads quickly and pervasively. Such excessive use is leading to greater resistant strains of bugs and having a serious negative health impact on the ability to treat humans with antibiotics.

The health effects of fracking are being closely followed and we were advised that it’s not looking good for water – the water table is being contaminated and the diversion and purification is costly and challenging.

Finally, there is transportation. And though some cities in the midwest might debate the cost viability of a bus transportation system for…ever (yes, you, Indianapolis), thankfully others have embraced clean bus technology and are making it work. We are fortunate to have an incredible transit system, and I look forward to the day (dare I say it) when the Trapelo Rd. buses will get their wires back and we can all breathe a little easier again.

–Kate Bowen, 10/2013