Whether or not one agrees that climate change directly affects our lives, there is no disputing that weather patterns have changed in the last few years. According to the 2013 United Nations climate report, scientists worldwide can now state with 95% certainty that humans are causing most of today’s climate issues. Many think that these changes are only causing polar ice caps to melt, but there are serious long term health consequences that can occur as a result. These consequences affect us and future generations.
As a result of these shifts and extremes in our environment, scientists report that the population will experience more air pollution and water borne diseases. In addition, the shifts will compromise our water resources and as a result our food supply. News reports indicate that last summer’s heat waves in Europe resulted in 70,000 deaths in 11 days. Government statistics indicate that in one month of temperatures over 100 degrees in Russia, 55,000 died, one million acres burned, and crop production dropped by 25%. The phenomenon of environmental refugees, only recently looked as a result of climate change, could rise as a result.
Recently, the White House released a memo on how the administration was preparing for the impact of climate change, building on plans started in October 2009. The memo states in part, “the impacts of climate change – including an increase in prolonged periods of excessively high temperatures, more heavy downpours, an increase in wildfires, more severe droughts, permafrost thawing, ocean acidification, and sea-level rise – are already affecting communities, natural resources, ecosystems, economies, and public health across the United States. These impacts are often most significant for communities that already face economic or health-related challenges, and for species and habitats that are already facing other pressures.
The memo went on to state that “managing these risks requires deliberate preparation, close cooperation, and coordinated planning by the Federal Government. In addition, stakeholders need to be involved to facilitate Federal, State, local, tribal, private-sector, and nonprofit-sector efforts to improve climate preparedness and resilience; help safeguard our economy, infrastructure, environment, and natural resources; and provide for the continuity of executive department and agency (agency) operations, services, and programs.”
Further, the Journal of Nature indicates that since 1979, 40% of the polar ice caps have melted. The Journal cites that future summers will be warmer than the warmest on record. These weather changes will affect many health conditions, including lung diseases. Rising temperatures will be felt most by city dwellers, and although it might be a slow process, it does not mean that actions shouldn’t be taken immediately.
As high-intensity rainstorms and heat events increase in frequency, the question must be asked what have we have done to address these events. Further, an assessment of where residents are most vulnerable is necessary. This is why reassessing policy development of urban areas is one of the first steps we have to make; with climate change included in regional infrastructure plans. Our planning processes must change and become proactive, not reactive.
We cannot view global warming in the abstract and think it only affects distant ice caps. News reports indicated that Lake Michigan, for example, had a new record low water level in December 2013. The latest studies have shown that in the past 40 years ice covering of Lake Michigan has declined about 71%. These lower water levels and warmer temperatures may increase the amount of mercury in the food chain, not to mention their effect on the millions of people depending on Lake Michigan for drinking water.
What are some of the things we can do now to stop the effects of this phenomenon in our day to day lives. Government reports indicate that three million people die each year due to physical inactivity with an additional three million deaths annually due to urban air pollution. As a result, the World Health Organization recently suggested reducing car use by taking all round trips of five miles or less with alternative modes of transport, if possible. For example, if only half of short trips could be accomplished by bike that would reduce auto emissions by 20%. These changes could save up to 500 lives a year, with 100,000 hospital admissions avoided. Swapping pedals for tailpipes is a small change that could pay huge dividends by reducing heart attacks, cancer and road traffic crashes. Many cities across the United States are developing plans to shift the focus from cars to alternative transportation.
President Obama spoke about climate change at his inauguration in 2009 and created a Climate Action plan in June 2013. Part of that plan is to build resilience against climate effects which includes a climate profile, vulnerability assessment, disease burden and making projections for 50 years from now.
There is no single fix to this problem. In addition, the recent pattern of extreme cold temperatures is another component and its implications cannot be solved with a narrow focus and lack of conversation. We must look at climate change as a reality and be the best stewards of our planet as possible, if not for our sake, then for the sake of future generations.
Mariyana Spyropoulos is an attorney based in Chicago, IL as well as an elected Commissioner at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. @m_Spyropoulos