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April 4 — Climate change is already having significant, costly and negative public health impacts that will only grow worse without significant additional efforts to combat the problem, according to an Obama administration report released April 4.
The report, extensively peer-reviewed and compiled by eight federal agencies over three years, concluded climate change worsens acute respiratory illnesses, aggravates water-borne diseases, disproportionately affects vulnerable populations and exacerbates vector-borne illnesses like Lyme disease and West Nile virus.
“What might surprise people when they read this report is the breadth of pathways through which climate change affects health,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told reporters. “If we don’t address climate change, then we will not be safeguarding the health of current and future generations.”
Officials, including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and White House Science Adviser John Holdren, said the report provides further impetus for executive actions to combat the problem and strengthened already-identified links between climate change and adverse public health impacts.
The report comes as the latest effort from the administration to frame the need for action to address climate change in public health terms. During a June 2015 summit, McCarthy said “normal human beings” better understood the need to act on climate change when it was framed as a public health risk .
Among the greatest risks to public health from climate change is worsening air pollution that may fuel allergies and asthma cases. Such pollution, which includes fine particulate matter and ground-level ozone, will fuel “hundreds to thousands of premature deaths, hospital admissions and cases of acute respiratory illnesses” annually by 2030, according to the report.
In addition, climate change may cause “thousands to tens of thousands” of deaths each summer due to extreme heat conditions, which would far outpace any reduction in deaths from extreme cold, the report found.
For example, one model in the report predicted an additional 11,000 deaths during the summer of 2030 and an additional 27,000 deaths in 2100 would be due to extreme heat events.
Climate change will also enable the wider spread of ticks and mosquitoes known to carry diseases like Lyme disease and West Nile virus, according to the report. Extreme weather events linked to the problem could overwhelm the nation's drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, causing the spread of water-borne illnesses, according to the report.
The report also links extreme weather to worsening nutritional value in food and emotional strain that could, in turn, exacerbate mental health problems.
“This document shows that the public health case for climate action is really compelling beyond words,” McCarthy said. “It’s not just about glaciers and polar bears.”
Vulnerable populations, including pregnant women, low-income residents, immigrants, citizens with disabilities and the elderly, are among those communities likely to feel the public health impacts most acutely.
“When you think about what we need to do to safeguard the health of current and future generations, climate change needs to be on that list as a high priority,” Murthy said. “Because if we do not act today to address climate change, my concern is that we are going to be seeing more illness, we’re going to be seeing more climate-related deaths, and that’s not a future we need to or should accept.”
Holdren said the report assumed some degree of action to address climate change, including the provisions of President Barack Obama's Climate Action Plan and the international Paris Agreement. But, he cautioned, significant further action would be needed to stave off the worst potential health impacts.
“We will need a big encore after 2030 in terms of further, deep cuts in order to avoid the bulk of the worst impacts described in this report,” Holdren said. “There is a huge difference in magnitude of impacts if we fail to act and the much smaller magnitude we expect if we take aggressive action set out in the president’s Climate Action Plan.”
Eight federal agencies, led by the EPA, the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, contributed to the report, which included the contributions from more than 100 experts.
Obama asked for the report in his June 2013 Climate Action Plan and his administration has frequently since then sought to frame the need for action in public health terms. In April 2015, the president participated in a public health roundtable as the administration released a draft version of this report .
“As far as history is concerned, this is a new type of threat that we’re facing,” Murthy said. “The solution is not going to be simple, but it is possible.”
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