According to a report published last Tuesday by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), climate change poses a significant threat to the health of every person living in the US. The report entitled ‘The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States’ is the result of collaboration between The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and seven other Federal Agencies including the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The report builds on the National Climate Assessment which was published in 2014 by the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) and takes into account reviews and contributions from published scientific literature. Each chapter discusses the strength of the evidence for a climate/health link such as temperature related death and illness, air quality impacts and the impacts of extreme weather events on human health. The report also provides context for understanding the changing health risks that people living in the US face – enabling the US Government to better identify, project and respond to future climate change related health threats.
According to the USEPA, the impacts of human induced climate change are increasing across the US. Increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are seeing temperature increases, changes in rainfall, increases in the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events, and rising sea levels. These impacts pose a risk to human health as they impact upon food and water sources, the air we breathe, weather, and the way we interact with both the natural and built environments.
… climate impacts are resulting in higher numbers of people being exposed to a range of public health threats
The USEPA report points out that current and future climate impacts are resulting in higher numbers of people being exposed to a range of public health threats. These threats include: increased exposure to higher temperatures; exposure to more frequent, more severe or longer lasting extreme weather events; poor air quality; diseases transmitted through food, water, ticks and mosquitoes; and poor mental health and well-being. With some of these occurring over longer time periods or at unusual times of the year, people may also be exposed to threats that they have not previously encountered in their cities or suburbs.
Each and every person living in the US is vulnerable to climate change impacts, and their ability to adapt will be tested by increased exposure. Underlying health, demographic and socio-economic factors also play an important part in the likelihood of exposure and the ability to adapt to threats posed by climate change. People on low incomes, immigrant groups, indigenous people, children, pregnant women, people with disabilities and those with pre-existing or chronic medical conditions are amongst those considered to be disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
In a more positive sentiment, ‘The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States’ report indicates that the scientific understanding of the increased risk that climate change poses to public health has in general improved significantly in recent years. One example of this is the range of tools that are now available to track changes in the type and number of adverse health outcomes related to tick and mosquito bites. For other health outcomes, the report indicates that more work is needed to ensure that the models used can incorporate time and geographic scales that are of most use in this research.
Reading the USEPA report with my scientist hat on, I applaud the rigour that was applied to the assessment that underpins it. I believe that the general public needs to engage with reports such as this one in order to appreciate the scale of the task that Government scientists undertake to increase the level of understanding of an issue to arm decision makers with sufficiently rigorous information upon which public health legislation and policies related to climate change can be implemented.
The general public needs to be cognisant of the reality that any rigorous investigation involves a number of stages including:
– Initial information scoping
– Determining exactly what is (and therefore what isn’t) being researched
– The equipment, methods and staff that will be involved
– Lengths of time for the study being undertaken
– Cost of the investigation
– How the findings will be published/communicated
Without sufficient resource allocation, it is virtually impossible for Government funded research organisations to deliver a product that provides benefit to the general public. Given the significant presence that climate change is currently being afforded across social media platforms, it is critical that organisations such as the USEPA are adequately resourced and represented. If not, how can we take note of (and action on) the significant threat climate change poses not just to the health of the US population but also to everyone around the world?