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Guest opinion by Mary Breskin
Many efforts are underway to reduce carbon emissions and greenhouse gases in order to save our planet. There should be an increased urgency to do so, in light of the public health issues associated with the use of fossil fuels.
Last summer’s wildfires in Northern California are estimated to have caused as many as 3,000 premature deaths, according to a Stanford University study. During the same period of time, close to 500 people died as the result of the excessive heat experienced in Arizona. This winter’s cold spell in Texas wreaked havoc on the power systems, causing dozens to die from the cold.
Although climate change cannot be directly tied to any of these events, climate scientists have predicted more erratic weather systems as the Earth warms. This includes hotter and drier summers, an increase in the severity of tropical storms, and even periods of extreme cold when the polar vortex breaks down. The weather-related events of the past year fit these patterns. As the Earth warms, the extremes in weather will only accelerate and, as a result, health problems will also accelerate. Additionally, since hurricanes and tornados can cause extreme devastation, they could result in both internal and external migration of peoples whose livelihoods have been destroyed. These changes alone will place such severe strain on social support systems that the political stability of many nations will be threatened.
One obvious area of health concern is heat-related deaths. According to a government study, as the U.S. heats up during the summer months, we can expect tens of thousands of additional deaths per year due to heat exhaustion and heat stroke, with children and the elderly at increased risk.
Warmer and drier weather increases the amount of ground level ozone, one of the chief causes of smog. Drier, hotter weather also creates the conditions for more wildfires worldwide. Both of these changes give rise to respiratory disease and an increase in cardiovascular disease. The World Health Organization predicts 2.5 million additional such deaths annually by the year 2050 if our use of fossil fuels is not drastically reduced.
Another area of concern is vector-borne disease such as zika, malaria, Lyme disease, dengue, and West Nile disease. Warmer temperatures allow the range of mosquitoes and ticks that carry these diseases to expand to additional populations.
As the weather warms, agricultural production is likely to decrease, causing the price of food to rise. Thus, famine becomes more likely. Drier and hotter weather will also increase the difficulty of providing safe water in many areas of the world.
Given these threats, it is imperative that we act now to prevent the worst of these changes from occurring. For our own health, we must drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels and the production of greenhouse gases as soon as possible.
Mary Breskin is a retired educator, and a member of the South Orange County Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby and Education.