Christine Newsom: Taking health and climate change personally
This is the first article by a group of community members in a series on our changing climate, offering a variety of perspectives on food, health, nonpartisan lobbying and shared values. Through Climate Connections, we will offer positive ideas about what we can do personally and as a community. This is for our children’s and grandchildren’s future.
— Marilyn Nyborg
Are you aware that climate change is now considered a public health emergency?
That’s the conclusion reached by multiple recent medical reports, including the Fourth National Climate Assessment (https://www.globalchange.gov/nca4). This report is mandated by federal law to be presented to the president and Congress every four years. The last report, which came out almost a year ago, emphasized that climate change is affecting the health of all Americans, especially children and older adults.
The most striking impact has been on our air. Over 90% of Californians were exposed to hazardous air levels in 2018. This causes respiratory disease due to particulate pollution, toxins such as ozone, and increased pollen burden. Asthma is now the leading cause of school absences in the country, and lung disease in adults causes significant loss of work days and income. More acute cardiac events are also seen on bad-air days.
Heat is now the main source of weather-related deaths in the U.S. Heat-related illness can extend from simple heat exhaustion to life-threatening heat stroke. Cities, with their concentration of concrete and asphalt, are hotter than surrounding rural areas. This generates a vicious circle, in which demand for more energy to run air conditioners increases air pollutants, greenhouse gas emissions, and consequently more illness.
While heat-related illness has been observed for centuries, its occurrence is rising: the 2003 heat wave in Europe is estimated to have caused 70,000 deaths.
Nutrition is becoming a concern: climate change has resulted in both flooding and drought, leading to reduced agricultural productivity and food availability. Ocean acidification from excess dissolved carbon dioxide causes reduced fish yield. Rice and legumes grown in increased levels of ambient CO2 show decreased protein and micronutrients (e.g. zinc and iron). So not only is our food quantity being affected — which raises prices — but its quality as well.
The impacts of climate change on mental health are multiple. Youth feel increasingly pessimistic about their future. As habitats degrade, mass migration is already leading to conflict over space, employment, food, and water. We can expect more depression, despair, suicide, domestic violence, and substance abuse.
But there’s plenty we can do to reverse these alarming trends.
Foremost, we can address the heart of the problem by reducing our use of fossil fuels (coal, gasoline and natural gas), starting now, because continued fossil fuel emissions lead to continued warming despite whatever other steps are taken. We can minimize car and plane trips. We can bike and walk more. We can get a home energy audit. If possible, we can change to Energy Star appliances, air-dry our clothes, install solar panels, and drive an electric or plug-in hybrid car.
We can also support our community getting its own renewable energy utility company (Community Choice Aggregation, https://www.epa.gov/greenpower/ community-choice-aggregation or CCA). Watch this column for further news on this subject. Additionally, we can get behind a bipartisan carbon fee-and-dividend bill, which will discourage the sale of carbon fuels.
We can eat pesticide-free foods, grown locally and as plant-based as possible. We can minimize food waste. And we can support farming systems which help sequester carbon in the ground, such as no-till and permaculture farming.
Recognizing climate change is already happening, we must respond adaptively, such as making cooling/clean air centers available to the vulnerable on high- alert days, assuring that we all have access to adequate nutrition, and making mental health services easily accessible.
For further commentary and discussion on public health impacts of climate change, you are invited to attend a community forum, “Taking Health and Climate Change Personally.” It will be held 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 13, at the Nevada Theatre. Panelists include Nevada County Public Health Officer Dr. Ken Cutler, internist Dr. Brad Miller, pediatrician Dr. Sarah Woerner, and family physician Dr. Roger Hicks. A $5 donation is requested.
Dr. Christine Newsom is a retired internist who practiced medicine for over 30 years in the foothills. She lives in Nevada City.
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