by Sean Philpott-Jones, Director of the Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership
My husband and I usually spend both Thanksgiving and Christmas at my in-laws’ house in Western New York, located about 30 minutes outside of Buffalo. This year was no exception.
What was different this year was the unusual weather. The Thanksgiving holiday was a white one, with sub-freezing temperatures and lots of snow on the ground. In fact, at that time the Buffalo area was still recovering from one of the worst storms in recent history, with some areas receiving over 8 feet of lake-effect snow in the two weeks prior.
By contrast, the Christmas holiday was a green one, with temperatures in the mid-fifteens and not a flake of snow to be seen. We did, however, experience high winds that knocked over trees and toppled power lines. My grandfather-in-law was nearly killed when he struck a downed telephone poles while driving home late on Christmas Eve.
It’s tempting to chalk up these weird weather patterns to global climate change. According to the vast majority of climate scientists (over 97% of them, to be precise), we can expect to see increasing temperatures, changing rain and snowfall patterns, and more extreme weather events like droughts, floods and blizzards over the coming years. These changes are the result of increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, largely as a result of industrial activity.
Despite concerted campaigns by business groups, right-wing pundits, and conservative politicians to discredit the theory — and despite the fact that much of the US is currently shivering under abnormally cold weather — I do believe that climate change is real. I believe it is happening. I think we are already seeing the effects, even if we cannot ascribe singular weather events like the Buffalo blizzard to greenhouse gases in the air.
But I am a public health expert, not a meteorologist. What concerns me the most about global climate change is the effect it will have on patterns of disease and illness, both here in the United States and overseas.
The health-related impact of climate change is most directly observed during extreme weather events, such as increased mortality among the elderly and those who work outdoors during heat waves. But the long-term effects of climate change on public health are much more insidious, particularly the impact on the spread of infectious diseases.
We know, for example, that infectious diseases like cholera and cryptosporidiosis show seasonal patterns. Until recently, the Americas had been free of the deadly diarrheal disease cholera for more than 100 years. When that water-borne illness re-emerged in Central and South America in 1991, it coincided with a periodic weather event (El Niño) that resulted in much warmer than normal coastal waters. Vibrio, the bacterium that causes cholera, was able to proliferate in these unusually warm waters, setting the stage for increased exposure and transmission to humans.
Cholera is now re-established in the Americas, with outbreaks linked to weather events like El Niño. Unfortunately for those countries affected, over the last several decades the number of El Niño events increased, and studies of historical data show the recent variation is likely linked to global warming.
The spread of other illnesses is also climate sensitive, including the spread of vector-borne diseases like Lyme disease, West Nile Virus, malaria, and dengue fever. Several of these are already present in this country. For instance, Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the US, with the costs of medical treatment and lost productivity alone estimated to exceed $3.2 billion a year.
Other diseases that haven’t been seen in the US for centuries are likely to regain a foothold as the climate changes, particularly as increased temperatures and altered rainfall patterns allow the mosquitoes that carry malaria, dengue and other deadly or debilitating illnesses to thrive in American cities. I know this personally, as a recent business trip to Grenada left me suffering from the high fever and severe joint pain associated with the newly emergent disease known as chikungunya.
Global climate change seems to be an unfortunate reality, with the effects increasingly seen through changes in rain and snowfall patterns, decreases in crop yields, and extreme weather events like heat waves, cold snaps, droughts and floods. While the impact on human health has been limited to date, we can expect to see increasing morbidity and mortality as water-based illnesses and insect-borne diseases become more common.
All we can do now is try to mitigate the effects, through personal behaviors and public policies that reduce the amount of greenhouse gases produced. The more the planet warms, the more likely we will have devastating floods, disastrous droughts and deadly outbreaks of infectious disease. Sadly, in an era of $2.50-per-gallon gas and economic struggle, neither we nor our political leaders seem willing to make the hard choices necessary to limit the rate and magnitude climate change.
[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on January 1, 2015, and is available on the WAMC website. The contents of this post are solely the responsibility of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]