Report Warns Climate Change Will Affect Health, Especially for Most Vulnerable Populations

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Californians are likely to experience more physical and mental health problems, injuries and death in the coming decades as a result climate change, according to a recent state report.

More extreme weather patterns, wildfires, air and water pollution, sea-level rise, food and water shortages, and vector-borne diseases are projected in the coming decades as the climate warms, states the report prepared by the California Senate Office of Research at the request of senator Ricardo Lara. The severity of those consequences will depend on how much action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and on how prepared the state is to mitigate the health consequences of climate change, according to the findings.

“Climate change is really a health emergency and we really have to start attending to it at such,” said Linda Rudolph, director of the Oakland-based Center for Climate Change and Health, a non-profit public health organization not involved in the report. “We really are talking about catastrophic health consequences …It’s an existential question for humanity.”

Vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, the poor, disabled, and racial and ethnic minorities are particularly at risk for health consequences as the climate warms, according to the report. The reasons vary by group, but include greater susceptibility to disease and extreme heat – for example among children and seniors – as well as a lack of access to resources such as air conditioning and health care among the poor. Populations dependent on the natural environment for sustenance and livelihood, such as farmworkers and tribal communities, are also likely to face increased mental health problems as the climate is disrupted, the report found.

Overall, the changing climate will pound people from multiple angles. For example, airborne allergens are expected to increase with milder winters, extending allergy season and putting more people at risk for asthma complications. Air pollution from extreme heat and wildfires is also likely to exacerbate respiratory problems. Strained water supplies, higher water temperatures, and agricultural runoff from increased pesticide use in response to climate change’s impact on food production could lead to contaminated water and food supplies, the report found.

These problems can’t be avoided entirely, but their severity may be reduced if action is taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions and help communities adapt to the changing climate, the report said.

“(T)here is still a role for strong leadership in the public and private sectors to reduce the levels of projected damage and hardship; efforts to mitigate climate change must be paralleled by adaptation strategies,” the report states. “By building communities that are resilient to a changing environment, the most extreme effects of climate change may be minimized.”

Many strategies for lowering carbon emissions improve people’s health at the same time, said Rudolph. Increasing use of public transportation reduces air pollution, for example. Encouraging people to walk and bike more decreases their risk of cardiovascular disease. Reducing consumption of factory-farmed beef is better for people’s health, can improve water quality, and helps the climate, Rudolph added.

Helene Margolis, an associate professor with the Department of Internal Medicine at UC Davis and an author on California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment, said California is ahead of most states when in comes to addressing climate change, but still has much work to do. She said policymakers must focus on strategies that reduce carbon emissions and help people adapt to climate change at the same time. For example, improving people’s access to air conditioning isn’t a good solution if those air conditioning units are powered by fossil fuels, she said.

Margolis said the state could also increase people’s resilience to climate change and reduce emergency health care costs by making sure everyone has access to health coverage, including undocumented immigrants. That would allow more people to obtain preventative and primary care, helping them better control health conditions such as asthma, so they’re less likely to seek more expensive emergency services.

Improving access to health care in rural communities would also help, she said.

Both experts agreed the state should allocate more resources to local public health agencies and governments so they can prepare for the health impacts of climate change.

“There needs to be additional resources both in terms of funds and information provided to the local level,” said Margolis. “The more local you are, that is where not only do the communities know what their needs are, they know what their information needs are. And they need help.”

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