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Health: The Barometer of Climate Change


Public Health in the National News – Public health, fasten your seatbelts! Climate change is going to be a bumpy ride!

The earth is heating up at an unprecedented rate due to the atmospheric accumulation of waste gases from modern industry and agriculture. As the earth heats up, the lives of people everywhere are gradually and bumpily becoming more chaotic and less healthy.

Globally, urban heat waves are growing hotter, more frequent, and longer. Water for agriculture, drinking, and industry is becoming scarcer as key glaciers melt away and the atmosphere becomes more humid. Americans are learning from such storms as Sandy and the Joplin tornado that extreme weather events are increasingly injuring people, animals, livelihoods, and communities. More frequent droughts, dust storms, forest fires, and crop failures are beginning to dog the heels of public health aspirations and economic growth.

The World Health Organization has begun to monitor climate-related health problems. Most evident so far are air pollution issues—asthmas, allergies, COPD, etc. Heat will cause more heart disease and stroke as time goes by. Tropical and vector borne diseases—such as malaria, dengue fever, protozoa, encephalitis, and enteric viruses—are climbing in latitude and altitude. As the climate heats up, fresh movements to lead healthier lives—exercising outside, bicycling, and urban gardening—will be challenged by scorching summer days.

Health care will become harder to deliver—during Sandy, 53 health care institutions were evacuated. Rising food and fuel prices will challenge the ability of families to eat healthy diets, buy goods, commute to work, and keep their homes at comfortable and healthy temperatures. And, these health problems will be all the more severe for the poor, elders, children, and the disabled.

Public health professionals and planners are beginning to realize that if the United States is to maintain a healthy society, economic and health policies will need to adapt to rapid change. Health care agencies, schools, and government bodies are beginning to respond. The CDC is partnering with over a dozen states and cities in organizing heat emergency plans and cooling centers. Hospitals are beginning to secure their back-up generators and to prepare for surges and evacuations.

As decades pass, around 2050 or so, global temperatures are likely to blow past the two degree Centigrade Plimsoll Line that climate scientists have warned will prove catastrophic. In the last half of this century, barring an immediate global emergency response, conditions will worsen steeply. Ocean levels will rise; people will move northward out of overheated tropical zones; nations may go to war over scarce freshwater; and drought, extreme weather, and changing seasons will trigger major agriculture failures accompanied by widespread famine.

Scientists and engineers know of only one realistic solution to this problem: On average the world as a whole must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 to 80%—by fossil fuel reductions, solar and wind energy, economic efficiency, and healthy lifestyles requiring little energy. The world must move quickly, since greenhouse gases are already determining the climate well into the future.

Public health, however, can help us all muster the resolve to act. Everyone cares about personal health, and even more so, about the health of children and grandchildren. The younger generations will bear the brunt of the problem more than adults and the old now do. Out of love for them, we may find the power to act with imagination and dispatch.

This article was written by Andrew Jameton, PhD, professor in the UNMC COPH Department of Health Promotion, Social and Behavioral Health.

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