Energy & Environment

Climate change expected to raise public health risks

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Climate change is expected to exacerbate a host of public health risks for Americans over the next century, the White House concluded in a report released Monday. 

The study found that, as the Earth warms, it will lead to an increase in air pollution and allergens, which will worsen asthma and other respiratory diseases. Hotter temperatures will lead to more premature deaths during the summer, earlier annual onset of Lyme disease in the eastern U.S. and threaten the safety of food from pathogens and toxins.

{mosads}Vulnerable populations — low-income people, communities of color, children, pregnant women, people with disabilities, etc. — are more likely to be at risk, the report said. 

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy on Monday called the study the most thorough scientific breakdown of climate change’s impact on public health. Officials said it should raise the stakes for combating climate change.

“This document shows that the public health case for climate action is really compelling beyond words,” McCarthy said. 

“This isn’t just about glaciers and polar bears. This is about the health of our families and our kids. To protect ourselves and future generations, we need to understand the health impacts of climate change that are already happening and those that we expect to see down the road.”

The study comes after three years of research from a host of Obama administration agencies, led by the EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services. It was mandated by President Obama’s climate action plan from 2013. 

The report builds in carbon reduction measures that would achieve a 50 percent decrease in emissions by 2100 over current growth scenarios. Reaching even that mark, though, will require longer-term policy than those enshrined in either Obama’s climate agenda or the international emissions agreement reached in Paris in December. 

“We will need a big encore under 2030 [when that agreement expires] in terms of further, deep cuts in order to avoid the bulk of the worst impacts described in this report,” said John Holdren, President Obama’s senior adviser on science and technology.

The study projects “hundreds to thousands” of new premature deaths, hospital admissions and acute respiratory illness cases every year due to new air pollution, as well as up to 11,000 premature deaths by 2030 because of high heat in the summer. 

Warm weather — along with extreme precipitation events — will lead to more water-related illnesses and cause higher occurrences of pathogens in agriculture, the study found. People with underlying medical conditions are likely to see those become worse due to climate change. 

“The science has told us that climate change poses a serious risk to human health and that is really the most important takeaway from this report,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said. “If we want to safeguard the health of future generations, we have to address climate change.”

The report will yield only a handful of minor policy changes immediately. A presidential task force on children health risks will now focus on the impacts of climate change, and officials will look to develop new education materials focusing on climate change and children’s health. The White House is also launching a program to help tribes prepare for the health impacts of climate change.

But, officials emphasized, the report is designed more as a scientific document than as the basis for new policy proposals. They said the study builds on previous health assessments of climate change released over the course of the Obama administration.

“When you think about what we need to do to safeguard the health of current and future generations, climate change needs to be on that list as a high priority,” Murthy said.

“Because if we do not act today to address climate change, my concern is that we are going to be seeing more illness, we’re going to be seeing more climate related deaths, and that’s not a future we need to or should accept.”


Tags Climate change Gina McCarthy

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