December 29, 2016
By Dr. Laura Anderko
As we busy ourselves with the last-minute holiday rush and squeeze in some time to reflect on the meaning of the season through stories that express the importance of charity and goodwill, we need reflect on the many gifts that our home – the earth – brings to us. Including our health.
“Have a happy and healthy new year,” is a common expression we will often hear over the next few weeks. Yet without a healthy planet – including clean air, clean water, and a stable climate – we cannot experience optimal health. Climate change has negatively impacted our health in numerous ways, some of which are now only beginning to emerge.
The earth’s temperature is increasing, mainly as a result of human activity such as burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation. That temperature increase is occurring at a rate that exceeds what the world has experienced over the last 650,000 years. How are we feeling the impacts right now? Extended heat waves, extreme weather events such as hurricanes, droughts, larger and hotter forest fires, flooding, and threatened food crops.
As temperatures increase, air quality decreases due to more pollution and pollen. Asthma attacks, allergies, and heart attacks become more common.
As temperatures increase, extreme heat waves mean more heat stress and exhaustion, heat stroke, and death, especially in infants, children, individuals with chronic disease and adults who are over the age of 65.
As temperatures increase, insects that carry disease such as ticks and mosquitoes expand their range, increasing the risk for diseases such as Lyme disease, West Nile virus, and more recently, Zika virus.
As temperatures increase, the availability of drinking water diminishes. Droughts have resulted in widespread wildfires across the U.S., adversely affecting air quality from dense smoke that can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular illness.
These are only a few of the many documented health impacts from climate changes, and more data continues to emerge.
Given my professional commitment to mitigating the harms of climate change and in light of the coming holiday season, I have spent some time thinking about the ways the classic holiday story A Christmas Carol might be used to frame our own climate storyline. (Indeed, other writers have also pondered the same connection.)
In my variation of the tale, we are collectively Ebenezer Scrooge – the protagonist in a story where there is ultimately a right and a wrong choice for our future. Our visiting ghosts illuminate climate past, present, and yet to come.
On our journey, the ghost of Climate Past shows that we once – not too long ago – had predictable seasons and patterns of weather that allowed us to build lives and sustain our society. Global warming trends, noted since the 1930s were linked with the Industrial Revolution, when the use of coal and fossil fuels sped up greenhouse gas emissions. Our insatiable desire for a lifestyle built on fossil fuels has created unprecedented changes in our climate and health.
The ghost of Climate Present shows us that we are on the brink of catastrophe on our earth. In Charles Dickens’ story, the character Tiny Tim is seriously ill and will die if not cared for. In ours, the earth faces the same tragic fate from greenhouse gases that are building in our atmosphere. Scrooge is warned that Ignorance and Want – personified as children – are to be ignored at great peril. That lesson is an important one for our climate story as well.
Finally, the ghost of Climate Yet to Come points to the “grave” we have created for ourselves if we neglect the need to reduce greenhouse gases and fail to protect our global home. Many cities are already adapting to climate changes, shoring up coastlines to prevent flooding or developing emergency plans for extreme weather events. Economic losses from climate-related disasters have “soared from $5 billion to $27 billion U.S. dollars annually from 1970 to 2010,” according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, with a recent 2012 estimate at $100 billion.
However, solutions are within our reach. A newly enlightened Scrooge would be pleased to know that healthy public policy not only save lives, but also saves money. The Clean Air Act, for example, has been found to increase the size of the economy through improved public health and a more productive workforce. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than $1 trillion in benefits such as reduced hospitalizations and sick days, was experienced in 2010 – due to this act. Additional solutions include promoting renewable energy, plant-based diets, and reforestation.
As Ebeneezer Scrooge had a choice, so do we. What course will we take when offered a choice by the ghost of Climate Yet to Come? Will 2017 and other new years ahead be both happy and healthy?
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