Suppose we meet for a cup of coffee, and in the course of our conversation, I tell you that 2014 was officially the hottest year on record. I mention that over the past 12 years, every state in the Western United States has experienced an increase in the average number of large wildfires per year compared to the annual average from 1980 to 2000. I state that only 50 parts per million of greenhouse gases stand between disaster and us.
Now, imagine a different scenario. I’m your physician, and I tell you that the high particulate matter found in the air in your neighborhood causes your asthma. I warn you that you’ll have to start watching for signs that you could have malaria, which you never worried about before because of where you live. I advise you to make sure that your elderly parents have air-conditioning in their home this summer because they could die without it.
Which conversation do you think you would take more seriously? Which would be most likely to motivate you to become an advocate for locally addressing climate change?
It’s not “just business”; it’s personal
In a recent talk at Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy spoke about a new climate change communication strategy: one that will link the rapid warming of our planet with personal health. The president’s hope is that by framing global warming as a public health issue, rather than as an environmental or national security problem, people will more easily and quickly connect with the crisis. The thinking is that if you don’t live on the coasts or in the American West’s fire zones, it may be easy to brush aside 2012’s Hurricane Sandy—one of the costliest natural disasters on record in the United States—or 2013’s Rim Fire—the largest wildfire in Sierra Nevada history, fueled by hot temperatures and a severe drought. But, it’s much harder to ignore your own health and that of your family.
According to the EPA, Earth’s average temperature has risen by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century. It is projected to rise an additional 2 degrees over the next 100 years. While these shifts may seem small, they can translate into large and potentially dangerous changes in our weather. Many places have already experienced more floods, more droughts and/or more frequent and severe heat waves.
The World Health Organization estimates climate change will cause an additional 250,000 people per year to die between 2030 and 2050. It is thought that diarrhea, heat exposure, malaria and malnutrition will take most of them. Lack of proper nutrition already accounts for three million deaths each year, but rising temperatures and more variable rainfall patterns will reduce crop yields in the future. More frequent and intense floods will create more breeding grounds for disease-carrying insects, such as mosquitoes. Diseases will spread and accelerate.
More particulates in the air and earlier springs and longer summers will mean longer allergy seasons and greater and more severe incidents of asthma, resulting in more missed days of school and work. According to the president, there will be more costly trips to the doctor—and more scary moments for parents and their children.
There will be apps for that
To help jump-start this new climate change communication strategy, the U.S. government will make more than 150 data sets about climate change and public health from agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) open to the public. Companies, including Google and Microsoft, plan to use this data to generate apps and tools that individual families will be able to use to monitor the air quality in their communities in real time. Some medical and public health schools have pledged to train their students in the health impacts of climate change.
Critics of this new communication strategy, however, say that emphasizing climate change’s personal and family health threat will just be more fodder for those who say environmentalism is too rooted in emotion rather than in hard-cost calculations and an awareness of the necessity of making difficult trade-offs.
That may be true, but hard science and cold calculations haven’t seemed to work, either. After decades of dire scientific warnings about the effects of continuing rapid climate change, there still exists a sizable group of people who doubt climate change is happening at all. In fact, according to a March 2015 Gallup poll, Americans are no more likely today (55 percent) than in the past two years to believe the effects of global warming are occurring. And how do you use facts to talk about the issue when the very words “climate change” have been reported to be banned from the mouths of state officials?
Do you think framing global warming as a public health issue—rather than an environmental issue—will finally encourage some meaningful local and national action? Could medical professionals turn out to be the best messengers we have for what will happen to us if rapid climate change continues?
After all, as President Obama said, “you can’t cordon yourself off from the air or climate.”
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,