The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) organized a three-day conference on climate and health. As the Trump administration took power, the conference was abruptly cancelled. So former Vice President Al Gore and his Climate Reality Project, former President Jimmy Carter, the American Public Health Association (APHA), public health expert Dr. Howard Frumkin, and others stepped in to fill the gap, putting on a one-day summit at the Carter Center in Atlanta last week. ASLA signed on as a member of the summit’s partnership circle, along with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the U.S. Green Building Council. In Atlanta, Gore kicked off the conference by arguing that “too little attention is being paid to the health consequences of climate change.” And focusing on coming health impacts could be a more compelling way to persuade the public that more action is needed now. We couldn’t agree more.
“We are now using the open sky as a sewer,” Gore said. The billions of tons of carbon emissions spewed into the atmosphere have a warming effect equal to exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs every day. If unabated, the warming effect of all of this pollution will not only lead to ecological catastrophe, but a “medical emergency.” If we continue on a “business as usual” scenario, which could eventually warm the planet by 8-12 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, there will be dire implications for human health.
Gore and leading scientists discussed key areas where climate change is expected to cause major human health impacts (due to time constraints, they left out discussing animal and plant health). Here below are the first four impacts; part 2 will have the rest:
Infectious Diseases: “Tropical diseases are on the move. With air travel, they can spread more easily, but with climate change, there are new areas where diseases can become endemic.” As regions warm, diseases like Zika, Chikungunya, West Nile, Dengue Fever, malaria, and others spread by mosquitoes, can take root. Many regions not currently affected by these diseases — places thought to be north of the “mosquito line” — should worry and become better prepared. Also, average global humidity is 4-5 percent higher than 30 years ago, and those numbers are only expected to increase. With higher humidity and heat, mosquitoes speed up their reproductive and metabolic rates, which means there are more mosquitoes biting more.
In India, “there were 39 million cases of Dengue fever per year.” Last year, a park in Tokyo was closed due a Dengue Fever outbreak. And in central China, “malaria has re-emerged” for the first time in ages.
The spread of the Zika virus in the U.S,, which the CDC considers a health emergency, has already affected Puerto Rico, Miami-Dade county, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. And many scientists, Gore said, “suspect it’s now spreading up and down the Gulf Coast.” For most people, Zika causes relatively mild symptoms, such as a rash, fever, joint pain, and eye aches, for about a week and then clears up. For pregnant women, there are serious implications — the virus can cause miscarriages or fetal microcephaly and other birth defects.
Ticks, which are already vectors for disease transmission, are also moving north. “Virtually 100 percent of Canada will be within tick range in a few decades.” And we’ll also see new species — like snails — become vectors for transmissions.
Moving onto to other worrying scenarios, Gore said “runoff from increased flooding or extreme precipitation events will damage our water supplies.” With higher temperatures and more frequent storms, we will see the spread of cholera and other water-borne diseases. According to Dr. Glenn Morris, University of Florida, who conducts research on emerging infectious diseases, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, some 50 percent of the water supply in Haiti was contaminated by cholera.
Vibrio aquatic pathogens, which infect shorelines and also make oysters and other shellfish very dangerous to eat, are also spreading. Morris, said “vibrios are extremely temperature sensitive and every one degree temperature increase can encourage their spread.” Already, the number of cases in the north Atlantic is increasing.
Morris said even slight temperature gains can increase disease transmission. “Climate change opens up new ecological niches for pathogens. These are the unexpected consequences when people play with the environment.”
Heat Stress: While flooding from storms and heavy rains is the extreme weather event that kills the most number of people worldwide, heat stress is the biggest killer in the United States, according to Gore. Mortality rates increase by 4 percent during heat waves, which are more dangerous for the elderly, children, athletes, outdoor workers, socially-isolated people, urban dwellers, the homeless, the poor, and communities of color.
For the past 17 years, the planet has just been getting warmer and warmer. Dr. Kim Knowlton, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, said 2016 was the hottest year on record, beating 2015, which at that time was the hottest year on record. Currently, New York City has about 670-1,300 heat deaths per year, with 65,000 heat emergencies. Dr. Jonathan Patz, University of Wisconsin, said New York City can expect triple the number of extreme heat days (up to 39 days) by 2045. Correspondingly, Dr. Knowlton anticipates heat deaths to also triple.
More broadly, higher temperatures mean reduced productivity. Outdoor workers experiencing heat stress can’t work. Knowlton said with higher temperatures, the “U.S. could see a reduction in economic output of $2 trillion; by 2100, a 20 percent drop in GDP from extreme heat.”
Many places are reaching all time highs, too, Gore explained. India hit an all-time high of 123 Fahrenheit last summer, and Sydney recently reached 117 Fahrenheit. In Iran, a city hit 165 Fahrenheit, with the heat index, in 2015. What makes this all worse: “night-time temperatures are also increasing, so there is no relief.”
Gore said in these conditions “no human can be outside for more than a few hours.” The projections show that vast swathes of the Middle East and North Africa are on track to reach some of these temperatures on a regular basis. “Areas of the planet could no longer be habitable. They could become beyond the limit of human survival. Mecca and Medina are in this zone.”
Dr. Knowlton said it’s time to take into consideration the health impacts of the world’s energy choices. Moving to renewable energies now may still result in a 3-4 degree planetary temperature increase, which will be “manageable,” while a 10-15 degree increase, under current fossil fuel-driven scenarios, would be “catastrophic.”
Air Pollution: Some 6.5 million people die each year prematurely from air pollution, reports the International Energy Agency. Carbon dioxide and related co-pollutants, otherwise grouped together as small particulate matter, found in vehicle exhaust and power plant emissions are behind these deaths.
Because of air pollution, the life expectancy of those living in northern China has been cut by 5.5 years. In Henan province, it’s estimated that air pollution takes the lives of 4,000 people a day. Pollution in Beijing, China’s capital city, has reached near “unlivable levels.” It’s not just China experiencing deadly air pollution though. New studies show that 99.5 percent of Indians breathe unhealthy air, as do 94 percent of Nigerians. According to one analysis, Tehran, the capital of Iran, was rated as having the world’s worst air.
Some sources of energy are dirtier than others. For example, deaths from coal-related pollution are higher than pollution from other sources. Gore said “coal creates $216 billion in health costs per year.” (Furthermore, coal burning is heavily damaging in other ways. Mercury, which is a co-pollutant that comes out of coal, has tripled in the world’s oceans. Some 16 percent of China’s cropland is also contaminated with it).
Dr. Patrick Kinney, Boston University, said “air pollution should be at the center of the discussion on health and climate.” Warmer temperatures make smog worse, as it increases the negative impacts of ozone and strong oxidant gases. Kinney also said areas impacted by wildfire, which are expected to double with climate change, will also increase harmful smoke inhalation.
Allergens: Another form of natural air pollution that will get worse: pollen, which is expected to triple in many areas by 2040. In areas with Ragweed, there will be an increase in pollen load by 320 percent by 2100.
Kinney said that in New York City, “pollen season is now coming earlier. That’s bad news for people with asthma and allergies.”