Climate change denial has been a persistent trend over the past several decades throughout statehouses and the highest legislative chambers. Even our commander in chief, who early on was dubbed the "greenest U.S. president ever," wouldn't touch the topic during his State of the Union address this year.
But doubt and inaction come at our own peril. So says a humbling new book, Changing Planet, Changing Health.
In their analysis, authors Paul Epstein, a physician and world expert on climate and health, and Dan Ferber, an award-winning science journalist (and NUVO contributor), explore how a warming planet damages not only our health but also our struggling economy.
Dr. Epstein is associate director of Harvard Medical School's Center for Health and the Global Environment, and has worked with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. For years, he's been at the forefront of the global warming awareness movement. He and Ferber advocate public works programs to transform energy usage; in a background interview on their book's promotional site, they describe the revamp as "a global health insurance policy."
During a recent conversation with NUVO, Epstein offered insight to why Indiana residents should be concerned about climate change, explaining how coal hurts both our lungs and our bottom line.
NUVO: Your book covers a number of ways that climate change impacts health. What's the number one issue related to climate change that has the biggest effect on health?
Epstein: There are several direct pathways from climate change to health. The largest impact will come from changes in the ecological systems. Talking about forests, marine life as well as our crops, our food, our air — they are all dependent on a healthy environment. That's my greatest concern.
NUVO: Climate change can be a difficult, abstract concept for people to understand. Do you find that discussing the issue in terms of personal health makes it easier to grasp?
Epstein: I do. This is the whole motivation for setting up the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. It's to translate abstract and sometimes intangible issues into what's happening in your backyard and to your children, and how that's affected by climate change.
NUVO: Your book details the time you spent working in Mozambique and other places around the world. How do the actions of people in the U.S. affect health in other countries?
Epstein: The U.S. is a major contributor to climate change through our greenhouse gas emissions. These are the gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. We've known that since the early 1800s. We also know that this warmth is going into the oceans. Since the 1950s, oceans have accumulated 22 times as much heat as the atmosphere. That's what increases evaporation — a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor.
The whole water cycle is revved up — water is warming, ice is melting, water vapor is rising. So we're seeing more intense rains, and they lead to flooding and waterborne disease like E. coli and cryptosporidiosis. The warming itself is affecting infectious disease.
In the highlands, we're seeing this dramatically where glaciers are retreating, plant communities are migrating upward, mosquitoes are now circulating at high altitudes. The temperature is what affects the conditions conducive to transmission, in terms of changes in latitude and altitude, whereas the extreme weather events — droughts and floods — are related to diseases like dengue fever, malaria and waterborne diseases.
NUVO: Gov. Mitch Daniels promotes "Hoosier coal," or "clean coal" — we get about 95 percent of our electricity from coal. Consequently, Indiana is the 4th largest emitter of CO2 in the U.S. What are the health costs of this kind of thinking?
Epstein: We just published a paper, called "Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal." There we look at the health impacts for coal mining regions, particularly in Appalachia with what is happening with mountaintop removal. We look at the emissions from air pollution that causes cardiac illness. We look at the impacts of mercury. We look at the land and then the climate impact.
This adds up to hundreds of billions of dollars in terms of lives lost. It concludes with the idea that clean coal and carbon capture and storage do not deal with any of the life-cycle costs upstream.
NUVO: Why should Indiana's "fiscal conservatives" be concerned about these costs associated with climate change?
Epstein: Look at asthma, for example. Asthma has more than doubled in this country since 1980. More CO2 increases the pollen production from ragweed, to early flowering trees — it makes the pollen more allergenic, and some mushrooms produce more spores. On the other hand, we have particulate matter that the pollen attaches to and together they clog the lungs and help deliver the allergens.
Then there's ozone and photochemical smog that's increased during heat waves from tailpipe emissions mixing with other gases. The aggregate we're seeing is that spring, summer, and fall last two to four weeks longer than they did several decades ago, depending on latitude. The aggregate of climate change is extending the allergy and asthma season.
It concerns all of us, children and adults. Climate change is responsible for lost productivity, lost school days, and costs us dearly in health costs.
Costs associated with extreme events are [also] skyrocketing. In the '80s, it was about $4 billion a year attributable to weather-related extreme events. That jumped ten-fold to $40 billion a year in the '90s, and now we're consistently seeing costs in the $200 billion range from weather-related disasters. This is absorbed by some of the financial community with higher rates. It is taxing us.
Not only is it affecting our lives, but it's affecting us economically. Increasing instability threatens to bring more extremes, which is bad for health, bad for the economy, bad for political stability.
NUVO: You were leading the effort to raise global warming awareness when people weren't easily convinced about the scientific findings. How does that compare to your experience with today's naysayers in the political sphere and the general public?
Epstein: There has been a well-orchestrated, well-funded campaign to keep this drumbeat of doubt alive for people living in the United States particularly.
The extreme amount of flooding incidents in this country and winter extremes and storms increasing their strength, if not in frequency — these are changes that we're all seeing. It's amazing that more and more is happening that shows us the climate has changed, while more and more of our political debate gets mired in doubt about what we're actually seeing.
NUVO: Your book discusses London's citywide cleanup in the 1800s through infrastructure improvements. What role do cities play in countering climate change in the 21st century?
Epstein: Here's a set of healthy solutions, starting with vehicles, electric vehicles of all sorts — planes, buses and trains, plugged into a cleanly powered smart grid, and then combined with healthy cities programs. By that I mean green buildings, rooftop gardens, tree-lined streets, biking lanes, walking paths, open space, permeable surfaces, smart growth, and public transport.
All of these can make the cities healthy and well-adapted to the climate we're experiencing, create jobs and stimulate industries, and push these climate-friendly technologies into the global marketplace.