Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Climate Change and Health Problems

A new report by the Trust for America's Health identifies ways in which climate change might affect human health. The idea that climate change could threaten human health is not a new one, but it mostly has stayed below the surface of public discussion. The report is a useful reminder that climate is not just about melting ice or drowning polar bears (as important as those issues are).

Here is a sampling of how it might affect American health:

-- Heat waves, which the report says are expected to increase. The danger is expected to be worst, the report said, in concrete-clad cities, where the lack of greenery creates an "urban heat island." Under climate change, the experts said, summer heat could also sneak up on people in cities where air conditioning hasn't been needed in the past.

-- More "extreme weather events," such as hurricanes, floods and wildfire-breeding droughts. Drought could also create crop failures, the report said, leading to malnutrition.

-- More widespread diseases carried by mosquitoes, ticks and other pests. If warmer temperatures allow these animals to expand their ranges northward, the result could be more cases of West Nile virus, Lyme disease and hantavirus.

-- Increased air pollution, caused because heat contributes to the formation of smog. This, the report said, could increase the incidence of severe asthma or pulmonary disease.
Among those things, I would guess that droughts have the biggest potential impact in the near future. The water supply is already in trouble in many western states, with regular restrictions on water usage. Adding hotter temperatures and more frequent droughts on top of existing conditions could create a crisis situation. If more frequent droughts disrupt our food supply as well, the combination of water and food shortages could disrupt American politics in ways that are difficult to predict.

You can read the full report at the Healthy Americans site.