The public health crisis that is climate change

lancet 2017The Lancet, the leading global health journal, just came out with a searing report on how climate change affects public health. “Climate change is happening, and it’s a health issue today for millions worldwide,” said Anthony Costello, a co-chairman of the commission that produced the report.

Based on research done at 26 universities and intergovernmental organizations around the world, the Lancet report notes that atmospheric CO2 was at an all time high in 2016, reaching a concentration not seen for more than 3 million years, that has caused:

  • 306 weather-related disasters per year between 2007 to 2016 – a 46% increase since 2000
  • the forced migration of at least 4,400 people
  • an estimated 5.3% decrease in work productivity for people doing manual labor from 2000 to 2016 due to increasing temperatures (productivity fell 2% just from 2015 to 2016)

The Lancet’s health impacts of CCreport is exhaustive, addressing impacts and exposures, mitigation and adaptation, finance and economics, and public and political engagement.  And it’s timely too: for the first time in the UNFCCC negotiations, there will be a high-level event on “Health Actions for the Implementation of the Paris Agreement” at COP23, hosted by the Fiji presidency on Sunday, November 12 in the Bonn Zone.  As a vulnerable low-lying island state, Fiji’s leaders know climate change’s public health impacts all too well.

As Jeff Nesbit, former director of legislative and public affairs at the National Science Foundation during both the Obama and Bush administrations, observed in his NYT op-ed yesterday entitled Climate Change is Bad for Your Health, “This is now a medical and public health fight, not just an environmental one.”


Implementing Adaptation for Resilient Mediterranean-climate Regions

worldmap

One of the side events at COP 22 today presented best practices and case studies for implementing adaptation in Mediterranean-climate regions, with a focus on: consumer behavior; stakeholder and citizen participation; health; and climate policy. The speakers identified ways that sub-national governments can increase adaptation efforts. Surprisingly, few of the case studies involved countries along the Mediterranean Sea. Instead, the speakers focused primarily on initiatives and policies in South Africa and California, both of which are primarily mediterranean climates. In fact, mediterranean-climate regions can be found on every continent but Antarctica.

The Mediterranean basin gives the climate its name, and more than half of world’s mediterranean climates are found in this region. However, the mediterranean climate can also be found in regions in southwestern Australia, central Chile, coastal California, northern Iran, and southwestern South Africa. Mediterranean climate zones are characterized by hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters. These regions experience pronounced climactic changes between season, most notably in terms of temperature and rainfall changes. Mediterranean climates cover just 3% of world but account for 20% of plant biodiversity and house over 200 million people.  Most large, historic cities of the Mediterranean basin, including Athens, Barcelona, Beirut, Jerusalem, Rome, and Tunis, lie within mediterranean climatic zones, as do major cities outside of the Mediterranean basin, such as Casablanca, Cape Town, Perth, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Many of these cities are major coastal cities and biological hotspots supported by tourism-based economies that are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

The dense populations in these cities concentrate the demand for services and infrastructure, which increases the city’s vulnerability to climate change. These regions will experience an increase in their average temperatures, declining air and water quality, increased frequency and intensity of droughts and heat waves, and an increase in ground-level ozone. These impacts will lead to loss of habitat, decreased biodiversity, and water shortages. Climate change will also greatly impact human health. For example, during a prolonged heat wave in Los Angeles in 2006 more than 16,000 excess emergency room visits were reported. Just last year Jerusalem experience 5 straight days of snowfall, something that has not happened in decades, which shut down highways and crippled the city’s infrastructure. Additionally, as food and water become more scarce, populations will begin to migrate to cities in search of subsistence and further exacerbate the impacts of climate change. The first step governments should take in addressing this problem is changing how they view these migrants. Instead of seeing migrants as a political issue that is separate from climate change they must change the paradigm to one that views them as what they really are: climate refugees.

While cities are the source of many climate-related problem, they can also be the source of the solutions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underscored the urgent need for cities to act in its last assessment report. The building sector has the greatest potential for delivering significant and cost-effective adaptation benefits through improved design and smarter technologies to conserve energy. Many of these measures would have co-benefits too, including reductions in noise and waste. Cities can also adapt to climate change by improving their infrastructure. For example, Los Angeles is investing in bus line, pedestrian walkways, and improving bike safety. Cities must continue working to keep the lights on, people employed, and emissions down. These concerns are not limited to mediterranean-climate regions and should be comprehensively addressed by all levels of government to reduce their vulnerability and increase their capacity to adapt to climate change.


Climate Change influences extreme weather events, but by how much?

 

08extremeweather.adapt_.1190.1 We know that our climate system is changing as global temperatures rise. It is also now possible, in many cases, for science to credibly speak to the influence of climate change on the likelihood and/or the extent/severity of a certain type of event. However, according to a pre-publication version of a new National Academies of Sciences (NAS) report, there is still a long way to go to make credible claims about how much and in what ways a particular extreme weather event was affected by climate change.

PrintThe NAS report, Attribution of Extreme Weather Events in the Context of Climate Change (free pdf download available), is the work of the Committee on Extreme Weather Events and Climate Change Attribution. To create it, the Committee drew on more than 300 published papers, and conducted a 3-month process of multiple webinar meetings and a community workshop with leading scientists and other researchers working in the arena of event attribution.

The report provides the most up to date assessment of current capabilities in event attribution, guidance on presenting and interpreting studies, and priorities for both future research and its application (operationalization). While the report notes significant gains in the science of extreme event attribution, especially over the past decade, it cautions that this science is still emerging, and substantially more study is required.

On methodology, the report identifies two classes of approaches to event attribution – observational-based and model-based – noting that most studies use both to varying degrees. The model-based approach must, of course, account for multiple uncertainties, and the report looks at how those have been quantified. The suite of “individual classes of extreme events” examined includes extreme heat and cold events, droughts, wildfires, extreme rainfall, cyclones, and more.

The authors assign a confidence level (high, medium, low) to the attribution science for each of these event classes by evaluating three different measures:

  • “the capabilities of climate models to simulate an event class,
  • the quality and length of the observational record from a climate perspective, and
  • understanding of the physical mechanisms that lead to changes in extremes as a result of climate change.”Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 1.59.21 PM

The attribution analyses of extreme heat and cold events garner the highest level of confidence. There is medium confidence in those of hydrological drought and heavy precipitation, and little or no confidence in those of severe convective storms and extratropical cyclones. (See Fig. S.4) (Severe convective storms are severe thunderstorms, often characterized by hail, lightning, and/or high wind gusts. Extratropical cyclones are low pressure, generally mid-latitude systems associated with cold or warm fronts, e.g., blizzards, Nor-easters.)

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

In particular, the authors caution that, “there is no single best method or set of assumptions for event attribution.” How the question is framed and the time constraints imposed on a study play a significant role in the choices made for such parameters as: defining event duration, setting geographical area affected, identifying the physical variables to study, and choosing methodology. Natural variability is also always a player in an extreme event. Instead of “Did climate change cause this event?”, the authors suggest reasonable questions might be: “Are events of this severity becoming more or less likely because of climate change?” and “To what extent was the storm intensified or weakened, or its precipitation increased or decreased, because of climate change?”

The report recommends more study of 9 specific areas of weather and climate extremes, suggests the creation of standards based on event classes, and proposes ways to improve systemic evaluation.

While policymakers and the public need the science in order to better manage the risks around these events and enhance our adaptive capacity, those most vulnerable to climate change are looking toward the day that blame for these events can be apportioned and thus restitution sought. That day is getting closer, but it is definitely not here yet.


Is Climate Change a Threat to National Security?

paris-peace-signCOP21 began Monday with a moment of silence for victims of the November 13 terror attacks in Paris, and the tragedy served as a touchstone for world leaders urging unity and action. Nearly every speaker at the daylong Leaders Event expressed condolences for the Paris attacks, and some, including the Prince of Wales who opened the event, highlighted the connection between climate change and national security.

In his speech, President Obama declared “what greater rejection of those who would tear down our world than marshaling our best efforts to save it.” Later, in a press briefing room at COP21, President Obama doubled down on this sentiment stating that “in some ways, [climate change] is akin to the problem of terrorism and ISIL.” Both threats, President Obama said, require a long, sustained effort by the United States to assess and neutralize them.

French Foreign Minister and COP21 President Laurent Fabius has called climate change “a threat to policepeace,” describing a world where floods, desertification, and droughts will intensify conflicts over
ever-scarcer resources and spark a massive wave of environmental refugees. “Terrorism is significant, but naked hunger is as significant as terrorism,” he said. “And the relationship between terrorist activities and naked hunger are obvious. If you look at the vectors of recruitment into terrorist cells, most of the most vulnerable are hunger-prone areas.”

Also vocal on this issue is presidential hopeful Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders who stated publicly during the First Democratic Presidential Debate that climate change is the single greatest threat to the U.S.’s national security. Understandably, debate moderators revisited this question just one day after the Paris attacks during the second debate on November 14, asking Senator Sanders if he stood by his previous statement in light of the growing security threat from ISIS. “Absolutely,” said Sanders. “In fact, climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism.” Like Fabius, he explained that climate change impacts will increase international conflicts as people struggle over limited amounts of water and land to grow their crops.

Criticizing this correlation to terrorism, an Op-Ed published in the New York Times soon after the Paris attacks called out climate change advocates, among others, and asked incredulously, “must we instantly bootstrap obliquely related agendas and utterly unconnected grievances to the carnage in Paris, responding to it with an unsavory opportunism instead of a respectful grief?”

However, recent reports suggest that this correlation is warranted. In July, a report by the U.S. Defense Department called climate change an “urgent and growing threat” to national security, and this October NATO’s parliament demanded stronger action by member states to tackle a warming planet. The repeated discussion of the nexus between climate change and national security Monday makes clear that this is no longer a political question – it’s a fact.

Drought


Climate change is still “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”

Two recent reports add to the growing call for linking climate change laws with public health.

From the U.K., the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change followed up on its 2009 announcement that global warming “is the 21st century’s greatest threat to human health” by issuing a new report last week that also labels climate change as a singular opportunity to improve public health.

Why? Because increased government regulation of GHG emissions will result in a number of improved health outcomes. For example, reducing and lancet graphicthen finally eliminating coal-fired electricity generation not only reduces CO2 levels but does the same for particulate matter, which leads to decreased morbidity and mortality from respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Likewise government promotion of green space and public transit infrastructure (including bike paths) not only reduces transportation-related emissions but also engages people in more physical activity, thereby lowering their risk of heart disease, cancer, obesity, and diabetes. Having healthier people translates to lower medical bills (and increased productivity), a big financial impact given the cumulative cost of chronic disease. In sum, opines the Lancet Commission: “Health puts a human face on what can sometimes seem to be a distant threat.”

Over the next ten years, the Commission proposes policies that represent “no regret” options (those with “co-benefits” in UNFCCC-speak), meaning that they “lead to direct reductions in the burden of ill-health, enhance community resilience, alleviate poverty, and address global inequity.” The new report lays out 10 specific ones, but these four sum up their big picture approach: 1) investing in climate change and public health research,lancet graphic 2 monitoring, and surveillance; 2) financing climate resilient health systems world-wide; 3) phasing out coal from the global energy mix; and 4) encouraging transition to cities that promote healthy lifestyles with clean energy, public transport, and green space.

Given our tracking of U.S. health care providers’ increasing engagement with climate change, we note one specific call for action by the Lancet Commission: the creation of an independent and international Countdown to 2030: Global Health and Climate Action coalition that will monitor action taken on climate change’s health impacts and enable health professionals lead the response to these health threats.

Polish coal fired utilityFrom the U.S., the EPA has created a fact sheet to emphasize similar connections between climate change regulation and public health when explaining the benefits of its Clean Power Plan rules promulgated under the Clean Air Act in accordance with the President’s Climate Action Plan. The Agency highlights that by 2030, the new rules will cut carbon pollution from the power sector by approximately 30% from 2005 levels and that this cut will decrease the soot and smog that make people sick. Specifically, it estimates climate and health benefits worth between $55 and $93 billion per year due to avoiding 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths and 140,000 to 150,000 asthma attacks in children. The EPA calculates that these benefits outweigh the annual costs of the plan, estimated at $7.3 to $8.8 billion. The bottom line message:  “From the soot and smog reductions alone, for every dollar invested through the Clean Power Plan, American families will see up to $7 in health benefits.”

 

 

 

 


Cities tackle climate change adaptation

st kjeld beforeIncluding subnational governments like cities in the UNFCCC discussions has been on the front burner since COP19 in Warsaw.  While only sovereign countries may enter treaties, State Parties recognize that achieving Article 2’s goal of climate stabilization will take effort from other governmental jurisdictions, as well as civil society and private businesses.

And so this article about the first climate change-adapted neighorhood stood out.  Not only is the engineering and landscape design feat recently unveiled in St.Kjeld intriguing, it is striking that this neighborhood is in Copenhagen, Denmark, site of the 2009 COP15, which launched the idea of nationally determined contributions that now forms the backbone of negotiation for the new Paris Agreement at COP21.

“Climate change is a reality and we have to be prepared for floods, storms and rising sea levels,” says René Sommer Lindsay, the city official in charge of St. Kjeld’s transformation. “The [2011] cloudburst was really a wake-up call. We said, ‘Instead of doing pinpoint projects, let’s develop a rainwater master plan.’ Rainwater is only a problem if it goes where you don’t want it to go.”

City planners tore up neighborhood squares and replaced the asphalt with a hilly, grassy carpet interspersed with walking paths. When the next big storm hits, these mini-parks will become water basins, able to collect run-off water from surrounding buildings’ roofs as well. Streets with raised sidewalks will become “cloudburst boulevards,” serving as canals that channel rainwater away from the city to the harbor.  In the meantime, the new greenery cools the air as summer temperatures rise in northern Europe.  “Climate change is a huge opportunity to build greener cities,” Flemming Rafn Thomsen of Tredje Natur, the Danish architecture firm chosen for the project, explains. “We should stop pushing nature away and stop pretending that we can push the weather away. It’s a whole new paradigm.”

Noting that a city like Mumbai, which the World Bank ranks as the world’s fifth most exposed to floods, may not be able to afford Copenhagen’s climate-change adaptation strategies, this article points out how many cities actually can. Seven of the 10 most exposed cities, including New York and Tampa, Florida, are located in developed countries. New York, which has committed $20 billion to climate-change adaptation, is opting for floodwalls, while the Dutch delta city of Rotterdam has gone even further, designing a plan for floating neighborhoods. Several others are experimenting with mini-parks, which Morten Kabell, Copenhagen’s deputy mayor in charge of environment and technology, credits to people liking “blue and green, not gray. Countries talk,” he adds, “but cities know they have to act.”


“Well, I’m not a scientist either, but . . .”

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama picked up climate change deniers’ well-used “I’m not a scientist, but” phrase, and turned it on its head.

obama 2015 SoU“I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.”

The President’s nod to U.S. scientific bodies like NASA and NOAA is well timed.  In addition to their recent announcements about 2014’s record setting heat, a trove of academic studies have appeared in Nature and Science in just the last two weeks.  For example:

  • This paper in Nature reconciles gaps between models and observations of ocean levels since the 1990s and concludes that sea level rise is happening even more rapidly than thought. 
  • This paper in Science chronicles how global warming, ocean acidification, aquaculture, and miningNAS “pose extreme threats to ocean life,” and proposes creating ocean reserves and managing unprotected spaces akin to land conservation.
  • This paper in Science reports that climate change and species extinctions indicate the the planet is entering a “danger zone,” with human activity degrading the environment “at a rate unseen in the past 10,000 years.”
  • This briefing in the Proceedings of the Institute for Civil Engineering (ICE) warns that the West Antarctica ice sheet collapse will cause over 11 feet of sea level rise that will disproportionately affect North America.
  • The U.S. Global Change Research Program reports in this National Climate Assessment on the direct human health impacts of climate change, including increased disease and food insecurity.

In the non-academic realm,the World Economic Forum’s 2015 edition of its Global Risks Report ranks extreme weather, water crises, natural catastrophes, the failure to adapt to climate change, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem collapse among the Top 10 risks to human security.

With this data in hand, our non-scientist-in-chief stated last night:

“That’s why, over the past six years, we’ve done more than ever before to combat climate change, from the way we produce energy, to the way we use it. That’s why we’ve set aside more public lands and us-climate-change-300x225waters than any administration in history. And that’s why I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts. I am determined to make sure American leadership drives international action. In Beijing, we made an historic announcement — the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.”

UPDATE: On Wednesday, January 21, 2015, the U.S. Senate voted 98-1 on a Keystone XL bill amendment declaring that climate change is real and not a hoax.  That’s the good news on congressional understanding of the climate change science.  The bad news?  The failure of a second amendment acknowledging the human causes of it – specifically, that “climate change is real and human activity significantly contributes to climate change” – because the causation language of “significantly” troubled many Republicans.  Despite the good work of “a lot of really good scientists” at NOAA, NASA, and the inhofeIPCC (and despite the five Republicans, Lindsay Graham,Kelly Ayotte, Susan Collins, Mark Kirk, and Lamar Alexander, who voted for it).  Oh, and one more tally in the two-steps-backward column: Sen. James Inhofe signed on as a co-sponsor to that first amendment, saying for the record that “climate has always changed” and that it’s “arrogant” to think humankind can change climate. Sigh. Nonetheless Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders called the climate change votes “a step forward” for Republicans: “I think what is exciting is that today we saw for the first time – a number, a minority – but some Republicans going onboard and saying that climate change is real and it’s caused by human activity.” For more, read here.

 


NPR on Climate Change and Health

mcmichaelAlthough the UNFCCC negotiators express concerns about climate change’s impact on human health, there is little in the treaty’s governance structure to induce specific action on the issue.  A 2014 round up on NPR this week singled out the contribution of Tony McMichael, an Australian doctor and epidemiologist who said of dealing with climate change impacts before his death this year that “it’s likely to be an extraordinary century and we’re going to have to have our wits about us to get through it.”

In 1993, McMichael led the health team on the IPCC’s second report, AR2. That same year, he published the first scholarly book devoted to the health effects of climate change, Planetary Overload: Global Environmental Change and the Health of the Human Species. During his career, he published more than 300 scientific papers describing how increasingly erratic weather and climate (think heat waves, ice storms, droughts, floods, and disease-carrying insects expanding their habitat) can cause health problems. Recently McMichael’s work has inspired research on the mental health effects of climate change, for example on rates of anxiety and depression among people in both drought-stricken and flooded areas.


Mapping resilience

As delegates begin arriving in Lima for the start of COP20/CMP10 on Monday, a new report from the Royal Society underscores the need for more urgency in climate change mitigation negotiations.  The Royal royal societySociety, which was founded in 1660 and serves as the United Kingdom’s independent scientific academy, released today Resilience to Extreme Weather, which projects the human impacts of coastal and river flooding, droughts, and heat waves using data provided by the IPCC in its recently published AR5.  The report also provides an on-line “chart of defensive options,” through which the user may explore different policy options for reducing the impacts of these four extreme weather events and determine each option’s effectiveness and cost. The Royal Society, along with BirdLife International, will host a side event at COP20 on Friday, December 12, 11:30am-1pm, to encourage policymakers to look beyond “traditional engineering options” to adaptation policies and practices based in ecosystems management.


Making the link between extreme weather and climate change

aussie extreme heatNEWSFLASH: Record breaking heat on October 25, 2014.  Read more below.

This just in from down under:  current Australian heat waves are “almost certainly” a direct consequence of anthropogenic greenhouse gases.  According to the NYT, five groups of researchers used distinct methods to analyze the high temps that baked Australia in 2013 and 2014, and all five concluded that “last year’s heat waves could not have been as severe without the long-term climatic warming caused by human emissions.”  David Karoly, a climate scientist at the University of Melbourne who led some of the research, said that “when we look at the heat across the whole of Australia and the whole 12 months of 2013, we can say that this was virtually impossible without climate change.” These papers were among two dozen analyzing weather extremes from 2013 that were published yesterday in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, part of an annual issue that tries to answer the question of whether climate change has anything to do with extreme weather events.  According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist Martin P. Hoerling, who has skeptically viewed claims about links between weather events and global warming, “the evidence in those papers is very strong.”

These study results come at a propitious time.  Australia’s newly elected prime minister, Tony Abbott,bams_eee_2013_cover repealed the carbon tax and trading laws introduced by the Rudd government after it joined the Kyoto Protocol in 2007 (and Julia Gillard recommitted the country to a second round of the KP from 2012-2020).  Abbott’s government has also appointed a climate skeptic to lead review of the country’s renewable energy targets.  Consequently, Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop was one of the speakers at last week’s UN Climate Summit who only reiterated past pledges: reducing emissions by 5% below 2000 levels by 2020.  In this new landscape of nationally determined commitments, she suggested that Australia’s emission reduction target compares well with those of other countries.  “This is a bipartisan target. It is an ambitious target because it means that Australia will reduce its emissions by 22% against business-as-usual levels. This compares well to the targets of other major economies.”

UPDATE:  As the ADP2-6 concluded, Australia experienced the hottest October day since 1910.  According to the Sydney Morning Herald, “Australia’s first major heatwave of the warming season has broken temperature  records across the nation, more than a month before the official start to  summer.  On Saturday, the country set its warmest October day in records going back to  1910, with average maximums across the nation reaching 36.39 degrees, according  to the Bureau of Meteorology.”