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Thousands of Record-Breaking Extreme Weather Events in 2011 Prompts Public Health Action Now

Kim Knowlton

Posted December 8, 2011 in Health and the Environment, Solving Global Warming

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I grew up in a small rural town in upstate New York, east of Binghamton, north of the Catskills. Some of my sweetest summers were spent at my grandfather’s fishing camp outside Cooks Falls.

As a kid, I rode my bike along green fields of carrots and corn; milking barns were my playgrounds. Even now, upstate holds me in its quiet thrall—I know in my heart why the green vistas further east in Dutchess County inspired 19th century Hudson River School paintings.

Perhaps because of this attachment, I’ve been particularly unsettled by the devastation that Hurricane Irene wrought this August on that particular corner of the world. Dairy farms that lost their animals, bridges washed out, families who lost a lifetime of possessions and memories as their homes collapsed. This destruction reminded me, all too viscerally, that the intersection of climate change and health that I study as a scientist exists not only on the printed page of medical journals but also in the real lives of people -- people very near the places where I grew up.

We, as a nation, are experiencing extreme weather disasters more often. Just as scientists have predicted for two decades, as carbon pollution levels in our atmosphere rise, we’re facing more frequent and more severe storms, heat waves, and floods. As a nation, we can and do need to be better prepared for these disasters. That’s one reason NRDC’s Health Program has just released a new, web-based extreme-weather mapping tool. It allows Americans to track extreme weather in their area, examine the connection between extreme weather and human health, learn the best ways to protect themselves and their communities, and investigate state preparedness programs. It also shows how to get involved in the fight against climate change.

That is a fight we need to win so that people everywhere won’t have to suffer the health consequences of climate change. Those consequences are on the rise, costing us both money and most importantly, lives. The money is significant. A study several NRDC colleagues and I published with economists from UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco last month in the health policy journal Health Affairs found that the medical consequences of six climate change-influenced weather disasters between 2002 and 2009 cost Americans at least $14 billion in associated health costs. These costs are borne by all of us, whether we were direct victims of the events or not, either in higher medical insurance premiums or because the federal government (a/k/a you and me) underwrites approximately one-third of all medical costs in the US.

But those are far from the only health-related costs of climate change. As I’ve written before, climate change is extending the pollen season and may be affecting the prevalence and frequency of allergy and asthma among American’s children and adults. The consequences range from the annoying (think: more weeks of allergy-related blowing your nose) to the severe: asthma can lead to doctor’s visits, emergency-room visits, sometimes even death. Some in our nation could be paying the high price for carbon pollution with their lives.

During the Texas heat wave this summer, for instance, when daily high temperatures between June and August in Houston averaged 98.8 °F, 11 people died in that city from causes directly attributed to the heat. Some were elderly. But one was a 15-year-old high school sophomore, Al Smith, Jr., who fell ill and fainted during football practice; he succumbed two days later. He was only one of six high school football players who died this summer in the heat-ravaged South after going to a practice in searing temperatures. And the frequency of these hot days could increase ten-fold in the future, according to the latest climate science, if we don’t limit the carbon pollution that triggers climate change.

This summer, Texas families also experienced grave devastation and loss due to the worst wildfire season in the history of the state, according to Justice Jones, a forest service spokesman. In the last year, 10 deaths in Texas were related to wildfires, and more than 2,900 homes and 4 million acres have been destroyed. This has left many families with virtually nothing. Mizzy Zdroj, a volunteer firefighter in Bastrop County who lost her uninsured home to the blaze, is now staying in a friend’s garage with her 8-year-old twin boys. Large wildfires in the West have increased four-fold in recent decades, becoming more frequent and longer-lasting as hotter springs and summers dry soils and vegetation. Even hotter temperatures, if climate change continues on its current course, will heighten wildfire risks.

We owe ourselves, our families and our neighbors much more than these heartbreaking outcomes. Preparedness measures that anticipate climate change-related weather extremes help save money and lives. Over a dozen US cities, including Philadelphia, PA, have early heat-health warning systems that are already helping save lives when extreme heat approaches. However, only 13 states have currently developed climate action plans or strategies that include at least one health preparedness measure. (You can read more about those 13 states on NRDC’s Climate Change Threatens Health webpages here.) The other 37 states need to get on board. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, we can help limit future climate disasters by reducing the carbon pollution we create as a nation. A host of successful strategies are waiting to be employed.

Together, we can take the steps that will protect the people and the places we love from seeing summers becoming even more lethally hot. Let’s not wait for thousands more record-breaking extreme events, either. Let’s do it now.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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