This allergy season, the Obama administration would like everyone to remember that ragweed pollen season is longer thanks to climate change. Anyone with Lyme Disease or West Nile Virus can thank the same culprit. In fact, those who have gotten a Vibrio infection after eating bad shellfish should also reflect on the severity of human-induced climate change.
The wide-ranging effects of global warming on human health were the subject of an interagency report released Monday by the White House. It aims to quantify what researchers already knew, such as how hotter temperatures can lead to heat-related deaths. It also reaches into less obvious effects, like how climate change could affect food and water safety, and which demographics are the most vulnerable.
One of the report’s findings was that even if milder winters cause fewer cold-weather deaths, those benefits will be outnumbered by more heat-related deaths in hotter summers. The study projects between 2,000 and 10,000 additional deaths per year due to hotter weather in the summer, even after subtracting the projected decrease in cold-related deaths during the winter.
“You see the likelihood that in the hottest times of the year, it will be physiologically impossible to work outdoors” in already hot areas, said John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “That means agriculture. That means construction.”
On one hand, there’s a political necessity to outline how a nebulous environmental issue such as climate change affects people’s lives. Carbon dioxide emissions, the main cause of climate change, don’t directly affect people’s lung health, but the far-reaching effects of climate change can have severe consequences. The American Lung Association and 16 other health organizations responded to the report by calling for action. CEO Harold Wimmer called on states to develop strong plans to cut carbon emissions under the Clean Power Plan, even after the Supreme Court issued a stay on its enforcement.
But opponents of the administration’s emission-cutting programs point out that it takes many logical leaps to connect climate change to illnesses that are affected by myriad other factors.
“It’s always been a bit of a dubious link (to connect climate change to specific health impacts) because there are so many other factors involved and so many bridges they cross to get there,” said Frank Maisano, a partner at Bracewell’s Policy Resolution Group, which represents clients suing over the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. “They’re trying to sell their plan and they’re using every piece of heartstrings they can pull to try to sell that plan.”
The study does cover a lot of ground to illustrate how broad the effects of climate change can be. For example, the study found that the ragweed pollen season lasts longer than it used to, and that related health problems such as asthma and hay fever have also increased. From 1970 to 2000, the prevalence of hay fever has increased from 10 percent of the population to 30 percent, and asthma rates have increased from eight to 55 cases to 55 to 90 cases per 1,000 people.
The study even touches on mental health issues, including increased anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder following extreme weather events.
The study also observed an increase in cases of Lyme Disease, covering a much wider geographical area in 2014 compared to 2001. The disease was mostly concentrated in the Mid-Atlantic region in 2001 but had been frequently reported in New England and even Minnesota by 2014.
The study also details that rising ocean temperatures can increase the risk of food-borne illnesses. One model showed that 60 percent of the Alaskan coastline will cause greater risk of Vibrio infections from shellfish consumption by 2090. The study also illustrates that an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can undermine the nutritional value of crops, increasing carbohydrates and decreasing protein.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Maisano’s affiliation.