2019 Lancet Countdown US Policy Brief Pieces Together Climate Change’s Public Health Effects

November 18, 2019 | 1:28 pm
Adrienne Hollis
Former Contributor

In my spare time, I am a problem solver, a puzzler, a dissectologist. I love the challenge of jigsaw puzzles, the greater the number of pieces, the better. To frame the puzzle and keep it together, a special adhesive is applied to the pieces. I correlate climate change to puzzling. The puzzle I am currently working on is extremely difficult and time-sensitive. It is a killer-–of people and the planet, of every living thing. For me, the U.S. Policy Brief is that adhesive, framing and clarifying the climate change and public health puzzle.

As an environmental scientist and advocate, I realize the importance of factually making connections, fitting the pieces together if you will, as part of our efforts to address longstanding inequities in economically oppressed and marginalized communities. I also recognize the inherent difficulty in doing so.

The major challenge environmental advocates face is proving causation-–that direct relationship between exposure to something hazardous and adverse health effects-–making the puzzle pieces fit.

Most of the time it is almost impossible to do so, unless you lived in a place where it is easy, like Woburn, Massachusetts, Love Canal, or the Escambia Wood Treating Facility in Pensacola, Florida. Unfortunately, and fortunately, it was easy to connect the pieces in those places. People were drinking the water, living next to, inhaling-–whatever the route of exposure was–something that caused a multitude of illnesses and deaths.

However, now the puzzle of exposure to contaminants and adverse health effect has a twist, otherwise known as “the threat multiplier-–climate change–which affects the ways in which puzzle pieces fit together.

The U.S. Policy Brief, which launches today, discusses the ways in which vulnerable and marginalized populations are negatively and disproportionately impacted by climate change. It specifically examines impacts on minorities and other vulnerable populations, like the poor, the very young, the elderly, pregnant women and children.

One of the Brief’s focus areas-–heat–describes how people in the US are negatively affected by extreme temperatures. This is similar to findings from recent UCS research, Killer Heat in the United States. Our findings show that certain populations are more susceptible to adverse health effects from climate change, African Americans, and communities of color, low-income communities, and other vulnerable populations in metros and rural areas and specifically highlights the outdoor workers and the elderly.

The Lancet Brief points out that temperatures are steadily increasing compared with pre-industrial times, much like the results found in UCS’s killer heat analysis. In UCS’s report, scientists observed that rapid, widespread increases in extreme heat are projected to occur across the country due to climate change, including conditions so extreme that a heat index cannot be measured.

The US Policy Brief points out that our indigenous brothers and sisters, along with African Americans, Latinx and people from low socioeconomic groups are more likely to be adversely affected by air pollution, and in some cases, to die earlier than the general population from breathing polluted air that is largely driven by burning fossil fuels. It also reported that US energy-related carbon emissions rose in 2018, and it was the largest increase in 8 years.

The brief also shared good news. Cities–nearly two-third of the 136 surveyed–have either completed climate risk assessments or are working on them. This will allow for the identification of communities most impacted, and aid in the development of much needed action plans focused on protecting public health, particularly that of vulnerable populations. It also provides suggestions on actions that should be taken now, on ways to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change, including reducing greenhouse gases, adopting legislation and regulations that move us away from fossil fuels and reduces emissions from transportation, the power sector and economy wide, and promotes investment in infrastructure and interventions that enable people to live healthier lifestyles.

The US Policy Brief provides a vivid picture of ways in which climate negatively impacts health, particularly that of the most vulnerable among us. It is a key piece of the climate change and health puzzle. There is still a great deal of work to be done – much like those last pieces of the puzzle that remain.