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Theo Spencer’s Blog

A Tale of Two Climate Reports, and a Call to Action

Theo Spencer

Posted May 9, 2014 in Curbing Pollution, Living Sustainably, Solving Global Warming

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Much has been made of the very sobering National Climate Assessment report that came out earlier this week, and for good reason.

As USA Today put it:

Devastating droughts in the Southwest, ruinous floods in New York City, killer wildfires in Colorado, intense heat waves in the Plains: These are the some of the disasters that are being exacerbated by global warming, and problems will continue to worsen in the decades to come, according to a massive federal climate report released Tuesday at the White House.

Climate change is affecting where and how Americans live and work as well as their health, and evidence is mounting that burning fossil fuels has made extreme weather such as heat waves and heavy precipitation much more likely in the USA, according to the National Climate Assessment (NCA), the largest, most comprehensive U.S.-focused climate change report ever produced.

You can find some of the more disturbing representations here. White House Science Advisor John Holdren gives us the short skinny in this brief Youtube video. Our President, Frances Beinecke, blogged on the health impacts raised in the NCA, and you can also see our climate and health expert, Dr. Kim Knowlton, discuss the health implications of the report in this short video.

But the NCA doesn’t only provide bad news. It also includes urgent calls to action, to prepare for the impacts that are already occurring and are likely to get worse in the future.

The same is true of a recent study by the American Meteorological Society (AMS) which highlights the need to make hospitals ready for more extreme weather, and the ability of our health care system to handle more frequent and intense weather events.

The report, A Prescription for the 21st Century: Improving Resilience to High-Impact Weather for Healthcare Facilities and Services, came out almost on the same day the Sandy-devastated emergency room at NYU hospital reopened, 18 months after the storm.

The AMS report notes that:

Medical infrastructure is especially vulnerable in a warming world and losing or weakening its capabilities, even for short periods, leaves lasting scars on afflicted regions.

And

The supply and demand for healthcare during and after high-impact weather events creates a pragmatic paradox where the supply decreases when health infrastructure is damaged but the demand increases from the injured and ill victims of the events.

Hospitals (like NYU) often have generators and/or fuel tanks in flood prone basements, as well as elevator hardware, backup computers, essential electrical circuitry and important devices like MRI machines. When Sandy hit Manhattan, the NYU hospital generators were safe on the third floor, but the fuel tanks at ground level flooded and the power went out. Patients at NYU and at nursing homes, neo-natal intensive care units and other facilities that lost power had to be carried down stairs to ambulances. Vulnerable populations in other parts of New York were stranded without aid for days, and the same has been true in cities and towns around the country hit by extreme weather events.

The federal government requires hospitals to submit plans for how they will deal with the large influx of patients that may come with a natural or other type of disasters—will they have enough beds, supplies, etc. However, there are no requirements that hospitals show they can adequately keep the lights on and provide services for which electricity is needed—like accessing medical records, not to mention powering all relevant systems. Hospitals are required to have a three day supply of fuel for their back up generators, should they lose power from the grid. But many hospitals don’t have this fuel on hand, instead they rely on delivery contracts with fuel suppliers who may be unable to reach the hospital in the wake of a severe storm

Accordingly the AMS study calls for broad-based vulnerability assessments and then development and implementation of risk management plans that include multiple services and constituencies in cities and towns. It also makes clear the interdependence of health care systems and facilities, general services provided by cities as well as public awareness.

“It’s really necessary that everyone that’s involved in a city be considered part of the [health] community,” the Chairman of Emergency Medicine at the NYU School of Medicine, Lewis Goldfink, told E&E News (subscription required) in a story about the AMS report. “In these big public health emergencies, you need to be able to draw on research about how well every community works every day.”

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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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