President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement has been condemned throughout the world for a long list of reasons. It’s a manifestation of complete detachment from the reality of climate science. The US economy will crawl into hibernation in a cramped den of dirty energy while the rest of the world eagerly exploits the enormous economic opportunities of clean energy. And it has quickly and decisively knocked the US off the leadership podium on the most important issue in the history of mankind. The White House, cheered on by Republican congressional leaders, is in defiance of the overwhelming majority of scientists, politicians and business leaders throughout the world, including many that run fossil fuel corporations.
At its core, the climate crisis is a public health crisis.
But at its core, the climate crisis is a public health crisis. Although physicians have been somewhat late to the game, they are now getting on board in a big way. Let’s take a cue from those relentless, repetitive TV drug ads: “Ask your doctor if the Paris Climate Agreement is right for you.” Here’s what your doctor says.
In 2009, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment conducted a public seminar at the University of Utah Medical School on how damage to the climate threatens public health. The same year, 29 distinguished medical experts wrote in one of the world’s most distinguished medical journals that global warming was, “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century, and will put the lives and well being of billions of people at increased risk.”
The American Association for the Advancement of Science recently stated the climate crisis will have “massively disruptive consequences to societies and ecosystems, including widespread famines, lethal heat waves, more frequent and destructive natural disasters, and social unrest.”
In April 2016 the historically conservative American Medical Association filed an amicus brief before the Supreme Court in support of the Clean Power Plan. In March of this year, 11 of the major medical specialty organizations in the US formed The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health. The new organization represents more than 400,000 physicians — about half of all the health care professionals in the country. Announcing this unprecedented move, physician leaders said, “Climate change [already] threatens the health of every American.” And here’s why.
To begin with, hotter temperatures themselves aggravate heart disease, increase pregnancy complications and will increase the number of heat strokes. But that’s just the tip of the (melting) iceberg.
Air pollution is intimately related to climate disruption. The chemical reaction that forms atmospheric ozone is catalyzed by heat, and ozone levels are increasing worldwide. A much prolonged, if not year-round forest fire season, and more intense mega-fires send smoke circling the entire globe, increasing everyone’s exposure to smoke pollution. The area in the Western US scorched by wildfires has doubled in the last 30 years. More global warming will increase forest fire decimation exponentially.
Hotter temperatures and more drought, like what the American West is experiencing, is increasing dust storms. A single gram of dust can harbor as many as 1 billion microorganisms. Diseases like SARS, valley fever, influenza and meningitis can be spread by dust. In the Great Basin of the American West, that dust also contains heavy metals like mercury, and radioactive metals like uranium, strontium, cesium and plutonium.
Vector-borne diseases, spread by mosquitoes and other insects, are rapidly increasing their geographic range and season of distribution. Mosquito populations are very temperature sensitive, increasing tenfold with every 0.1-degree C increase in temperature. We can expect — and in many cases, are already seeing — increases in West Nile virus, dengue fever, coccidioidomycosis, Zika, Chagas, Lyme disease, yellow fever, chikungunya, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Rift Valley fever, Japanese encephalitis, leishmaniasis, hantavirus and malaria.
Malnutrition and mass starvation are perhaps the greatest reason to fear global warming. The global food supply will be reduced by increased temperatures and the attendant increased water requirements of plants. Every day above 30 degrees C causes a drop in staple crop yields like corn, wheat and soybeans of about 5 percent. By 2100, projected temperature increases worldwide are expected to decrease corn yields 50 percent, soybeans 40 percent and wheat 20 percent. More droughts and floods will further decrease crop production. Weeds and insects thrive under warmer temperatures. Rising levels of CO2 reduce the concentrations of protein and essential minerals in most plant species, including wheat, soybeans and rice, according to the EPA. Increased heat threatens livestock. Milk production from dairy cows drops with increased temperatures. Ozone is a powerful oxidizing agent acting on, among other things, human lungs and plants. The US Department of Agriculture says, “Ozone causes more damage to plants than all other pollutants combined,” and it increases water stress, especially for wheat and soybeans.
Coral reefs throughout the world, like the iconic Great Barrier Reef, are dying. As ocean water becomes hotter and more acidic, entire marine ecosystems are disrupted. Coral reefs are the breeding grounds for about one-fourth of the world’s fish, which provide billions of people with their primary source of protein.
Military experts are warning that climate disruption, already precipitating refugee crises and regional conflicts, will reach an “unimaginable scale,” adding another layer of global health risk, including igniting security threats from more terrorism. People whose lives have been reduced to desperation from climate-related disasters will become more susceptible to terrorist recruiters, especially if the target is the United States, which has just brazenly told the world it couldn’t care less about the climate. If Trump’s top priority is to protect the US from terrorism, pulling out of the climate agreement will likely increase that risk far more than any travel bans or wall building could decrease it.
Finally, the climate crisis is a global psychological and emotional stressor. Extreme heat alone is associated with increased incidence of aggressive behavior, violence and suicide, and increases in hospital and emergency room admissions for those with mental health or psychiatric conditions. People traumatized economically and/or psychologically by extreme weather events are subsequently plagued by depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse and suicide. Lise Van Susteren, a forensic psychiatrist said, “Expectation of climate-change disasters is causing pre-traumatic stress disorder … the anger, the panic, the obsessive, intrusive thoughts.”
Robert Gifford, a University of Victoria psychology professor, said, “I see parallels to the fears we went through in the 1950s about the world ending because of atomic war. There was this general dread among people, and this fear of annihilation.” I remember as a child, drills in school to duck under my desk in case of nuclear war (as if that would have helped). Daily dread of the “mushroom cloud” hardly made life in the 1950s a carefree experience for children — or for anyone else.
Every excuse the Trump administration gave for pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, before and after, was deceptive and dishonest. For example, EPA head Scott Pruitt just stated that coal industry jobs have increased by 50,000 since Trump took office. However, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are only 51,000 total jobs in the coal mining industry. Now add to that studies finding that pollution from coal power plants kills 52,000 people a year in the US.
Even taking Pruitt’s word for it, for every new job in the coal industry, someone else’s life will be sacrificed.
Go ahead, ask your doctor if the Paris climate agreement is right for you. You know what the answer is.