This could be the start of a joke: What do you get when you combine 13 branches of government and more than 100 scientists?
This week, the US Global Change Research Program, an interagency coalition of the research arms of the US government, released a new assessment of the science on climate change. The focus of this latest report was on the human health impacts of climate disruption. Co-authored by a veritable army of scientists, the report offers the latest, most comprehensive examination of the scientific knowledge on this issue.
The punch line is far from amusing.
At the White House on Monday, scientists and officials gathered to explain how the new report advances the latest science on this issue, starting with an overview of climate science. Scientists recognized the potential of carbon dioxide emissions to warm our atmosphere as early as the mid-1800s; by the late 1950s scientists saw that this possibility was not just theoretical, but happening in the real world. John P. Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that our climate situation is clear “beyond reasonable doubt”:
- Our climate is changing at a pace and pattern not explainable by prior natural patterns.
- Climate change is already harming people and economies.
- That harm will grow for some time to come, due to atmospheric physics and the fact that we can’t change our energy system overnight.
- That harm will be smaller if we take aggressive action now.
What does “that harm” actually look like, from the health perspective? The new report details several crucial areas of health. It quantifies the kinds of impacts we will see from extreme heat, declining air quality, flooding, vector-borne infection, water-borne disease, food-borne illness, mental health problems, and other climate impacts. It specifies the confidence levels that scientists have about some of these likely health effects. And it gathers the science on some of the lesser-known health impacts, such as how climate change will alter the nutritional quality of the world’s staple crops. (Hint: It’s not going to help solve world hunger.)
Stephanie Herring, scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, explained that the new report takes a more comprehensive approach to quantifying the impacts of extreme weather on our health. Instead of just addressing the direct effects of weather, the report expands the timescale to before and after the extreme weather event. This is key, Herring says, to accounting for the health impacts of evacuating patients from hospitals in advance of an extreme weather event, for example. And there are health impacts after extreme weather events, too, she notes, such as asthma attacks triggered by mold growing in homes and schools after storms and flooding. The new report accounts for these important but ancillary health impacts.
Many scientists and officials also discussed the impact of climate change on vector borne disease. The report focuses on Lyme disease and its recent expansion; but Zika, the mosquito-borne virus linked to severe birth defects currently sweeping South and Central America, was also on the minds of scientists and officials at the report release. Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts, who has long advocated for climate action, said, “Zika is a warning. The hotter it gets, the greater the risk of these types of diseases spreading.”
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy noted “the sheer number of pathways through which climate affects health.” Unlike other health problems, climate disruption is a health threat for which there is no historic parallel. “We have never seen a force than affects so many dimensions of health for so many.” These health impacts can take many forms: the “scary moments” that he has seen as a physician treating asthma patients; the lasting trauma and stress from extreme weather events such as Hurricane Andrew, a storm that he lived through; and the need to map the use of lifesaving medical equipment in order to adequately prepare for power outages. Dr. Murthy also spoke about his recent marriage and his wish to start a family, and the conversations he hopes to have with his children when they are adults about what he did as an individual and a physician to help address climate change.
This report was released in the midst of a quiet battle playing out in the courts to defend America’s Clean Power Plan, the EPA’s first regulation aimed at reducing carbon dioxide pollution from our nation’s leading single source: power plants. Corporate polluters – and some states that prioritize the profits of industry over the health and future of our children – have sued for the right to pollute our air. Lined up against them are a large, diverse group of businesses, tech firms, energy experts, and other groups and individuals, reflecting the breadth and depth of support for climate action.
Moms also support America’s Clean Power Plan, because we are seeking practical, immediate solutions that will keep climate disruption in check. As EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy noted at the White House, “This is not just about polar bears and ice caps. It’s about our kids.”