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Jeff Schweitzer

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Transition Topic V: Free Lunch, Climate Change and Human Health

Posted: 11/14/08 01:40 PM ET

With a house in disrepair or a car coughing toward the next tune up, maintenance deferred saves money in the present, but at a price of higher future costs. Items needing attention can only be deferred, not ignored. Since nature offers no free lunch, we either pay less now or more later. Unfortunately the world collectively has taken the latter strategy in maintaining our environment, putting off critical actions today for short-sighted savings at the great expense of future generations.

The United Nations recently issued a report documenting worsening global air pollution, with an epicenter of soot, thick brown smog and clouds of noxious chemicals fouling the air in Asia. Automobile exhaust, smoke from slash-and-burn agriculture, waste from coal-fired power plants, ash and particulates from wood stoves and fireplaces and belching factory smokestacks have combined to create enormous acrid plumes of toxic clouds that irritate lungs, block sunlight, and impact local weather patterns across large swaths of the Far East. Crop yields in China are declining as a consequence of diminished sunshine. We are now paying the invoice handed to us by our parents for their deferred actions to control pollution even as we are bequeathing to the next generation an even bigger maintenance bill.

Industrial pollution is not our only problem. Lest you believe we are isolated from environmental degradations far off in foreign lands, visit Florida. We have seen there a 20-fold increase in asthma in the past several decades as a consequence of severe drought in Africa. Massive dust storms from that continent's expanding deserts travel across the Atlantic and into the lungs of unsuspecting citizens in the Sunshine State. Winds respect no political boundaries, and are unimpressed by vast ocean expanses. Like it or not, the world is tightly interconnected, depriving us the luxury of ignoring problems that might seem initially to be irrelevant to our daily lives. Pollution there is pollution here.

This brings us to climate change and human health. While hurricanes, melting polar ice and rising sea levels capture public attention, another dire consequence of global warming lurks under the radar. As the earth warms, we are witnessing a growing threat to human health in seven key areas:

1. Expanding range of tropical diseases
2. New strains of old diseases as they move north
3. More and more severe allergies as ragweed season grows longer
4. More mold and fungus in hotter more humid weather
5. Change in rainfall patterns affecting food production
6. More extreme heat waves
7. More frequent and severe droughts and longer and more intense fire season

The most immediate threats are the first two. Obama's transition team should work closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention so that on January 20 a plan is in place to tackle the problem. Such action was not possible under the Bush Administration, which denied the reality of global warming, and therefore would do nothing to mitigate the impacts of a changing climate. This inaction constitutes criminal neglect, causing us now to act with greater haste to recover some of that lost time.

The danger is real and immediate. As warmer weather moves north, disease vectors go along for the ride. Many of those vectors are insects, like mosquitoes, which are expanding their range. At the same time, climate change is wreaking havoc with bird reproduction, resulting in a decline of 75% of all bird species. Those birds were eating insects. With fewer birds to eat the bugs, not only will the pests be moving into the United States, where many have never been before, but there will be more of them than ever before across the expanded range. Water-borne diseases will increase in frequency because warmer water expands the season and range of diseases like schistosomiasis and cholera. Rodents also proliferate in the growing temperate regions with milder wet winters; they themselves are disease carriers, and also are reservoirs for disease-carrying ticks.

These concerns are not theoretical. New Yorkers suffered the first-ever U.S. outbreak of West Niles virus in 1999, a new scourge for the city that is now an annual threat. A new strain of West Nile that was first detected in 2002 is moving rapidly across the country, having already infected 175,000 people, killing 117. Officials are now investigating over a dozen cases of typhus in Austin, Texas. A decade ago, severe drought in the southwest reduced predator populations, leading to an explosion of white-footed mice, which carry Hantavirus, leading to a then-unprecedented breakout of that disease in the Four Corners region.

In summers to come, we will need to worry about more than charred meat and a few irritating but harmless mosquito bites. Coming to your backyard with a warming climate are dengue fever, malaria, yellow fever, Hantavirus, leptospirosis, Japanese B Encephalitis, elephantiasis, leishmaniasis and Chagas disease.

Flying and crawling critters bringing the gift of new disease are not the only problem. We will be sneezing more as well. An increase in carbon dioxide supercharges the growth of the most aggressive pollen producers, including hay-fever causing ragweed and the trees that give us the worst springtime allergies. But we are still not done. While we fight off noxious mosquitoes and dab our running noses, we will also be swatting more wasps and yellow jackets. These stinging beasts are already showing up in parts of Alaska where they have never been seen before.

For many, the threats of climate change seem temporally remote and geographically distant, and therefore difficult to take seriously. Perhaps the growing possibility of contracting a nasty tropical disease will finally be a wake up call.

 
 
 

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