This is an infographic created by Allison Lee. It comes from the website Learn Stuff. Check out her huge list of sources at the bottom of the infographic. WOW!
Monday October 29, 2012 Hurricane Sandy struck the Eastern Seaboard. As it moved inland it hit two winter weather systems creating what has been called a hybrid monster storm. As of November 3rd over 113 deaths can be attributed to Sandy on the US mainland, mostly in New York. Tropical storm force winds were seen over the 800 mile wind and rain path resulting in fatalities in states as far west as West Virginia, as far north as New Hampshire and as far south as North Carolina. Many are raising the question of the relationship of this mega-storm to global warming.
Josh Glasser studies the impact of climate change on public health, human security and disaster recovery at Harvard’s School of Public Health. When discussing the topic, he turns to The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change the leading international body, established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) for assessment of what is happening in climate change. The IPCC is a body that reviews and assesses the most recent scientific, technical and socio-economic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change.
According to Glasser, “Hurricanes have always happened, but global warming will be like accelerant on a fire.” He explains that there is “consensus that global warming will most affect the ‘hydro-cycle.’” The hydrological cycle, or water cycle, is the continuous movement of water on, above and below the Earth’s surface. Water molecules move from one reservoir to another: from ocean water to the atmosphere, by evaporation and cloud formation; to condensation and precipitation as rain or solidifying to ice.
The common instrument of change in the cycle is heat exchange. And that is where global warming becomes involved. As described by Dr. Mey Akashah, the capacity of the atmosphere to hold larger cloud structures for longer amounts of time plays a part in this change. Glasser agrees that there will be “more intense and frequent heat waves, floods, droughts and severe storms.”
Another impact of global warming is rising sea level. “Sea level rising is a total wild card. It complicates planning and makes storm surge worse,” he says. One cause of sea level rising is melting of the ice caps. However there is another that we don’t usually think about. Imagine a pot of water. As it heats, the water expands and actually rises in the pot. Now imagine the volume of water in the ocean, as it heats, it expands and rises.
Many countries are feeling the effect of the ocean water’s expansion now. Some feel that the high storm surge during Hurricane Sandy was caused by this phenomenon. Glasser has seen first hand, as a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam and later Bengladesh, the impact of rising sea levels on people. His interests include the link of climate change with human security, the impact of humanitarian practices, the importance of disaster recovery, adaptation planning and risk reduction. “Many human societies have developed over time to adapt and conform to the environmental conditions in which they find themselves. You see it in land use, housing, infrastructure, health care, recreation, voluntary migration patterns and so on.” That adaptation keeps them safe in sometimes very difficult situations. But when there are more frequent, intense disasters, especially in places with limited resources, people are put at higher risk. Environmental migrations are estimated by year 2050 to range between 50 million and 1 billion people.
“People have always been mobile, but the numbers are rising fast. “There are now more environmental migrants than refugees in the world. What’s more sea level rising and extreme events are likely to displace tens of millions in coming the coming decades,” Glasser adds.
How does climate change impact vulnerable populations? Glasser explains that climate change undermines health in many ways. It “…tears at the fabric of society–food production, accessing healthcare, the mental toll of disaster. These impact not only human security, the ability to obtain needed resources on an individual level, but populations as a whole are affected.”
As has been seen with both Hurricane Katrina and now Hurricane Sandy, when important infrastructures are damaged, the effect can be devastating. Glasser notes, “If the hospital or clinic is flooded out, no one is getting treated for any condition…climate-sensitive or otherwise. Imagine being an expectant mom, giving birth at home just as the monsoon floods come through.”
Glasser continues, “People the world over have adapted communities to their current environmental conditions. Homes, agriculture, urban structure, health care, recreation, etc., are all tied to the status quo. The crops selected, building materials, diseases to prepare for, even holidays and cultural festivals–all of it is related to the natural environment. Too rapid change is a problem for all but especially a problem when the government is weak, or resources are rare compounding the environmental problems.”
Some suggest that people just move from vulnerable areas. Often the most vulnerable “the very young and the very old, disabled, minorities” and the other poor are in harms way. “Cheap land is also the most marginal…living there is not always a choice,” Glasser point out.
Additionally, there is little research on the reasons for people moving. Likewise, the area of human rights is underdeveloped. “On the individual level promoting choice, autonomy and flexibility and freedom are important. But on population level, it may be hazardous if too many people move, or if too many people stay,” Glasser states. These conflicting perspectives in human rights were apparent during Hurricane Sandy. Governor Christie of New Jersey “essentially said those who stayed in Atlantic City were forfeiting all sorts of rights to protection. Justifiably from the perspective of risk to first responders–but for many, there may not have been a realistic choice to leave. There is a right to move but also a right to stay put,” Glasser explains.
There are no easy answers to these issues. Global warming is likely to impact human well-being in profound ways. Glasser sums it up, “All of this makes climate change a very sobering and scary possibility, I think.”
“It is an overwhelmingly popular misconception that climate change isn’t occurring or is a natural phenomenon. While some change is due to a natural progression, we can see that increases in temperatures are far more rapid than occurred historically.”
Her journey began studying marine biology. However she realized that, even though climate change is making a huge difference in the earth’s oceans, people weren’t really interested. She recognized that, to make meaningful changes in the effects of climate change on the environment, she would need to change. She shifted gears, going to graduate school in global and environmental health and hasn’t looked back.
Now, as a public health professional and award-winning human rights activist, Mey Akashah tries to generate the attention climate change demands. Her academic publications include compensation for human rights abuses, the impact of climate change and environmental degradation on conflict and sustainable livelihoods, and the health impacts of mercury contamination in the Arabian Gulf. Towards this end, Dr. Akashah participated in a twitter chat on September 13, 2012.
The chat began with the ozone layer. Chloroflourocarbons, known agents of ozone layer depletion, are banned. Yet new evidence published in August describes previously unknown mechanisms of ozone depletion. Dr. Akashah featured this research by James Anderson and his colleagues on her blog. Apparently there is a connection between climate change, clouds and cancer. “Climate change makes storms stronger and more frequent. Strong storms press water into the ozone layer. Water vapor breaks down ozone. Less ozone equals more UV rays reaching us. More UV rays equals more skin cancer.”
The cancers of greatest concern are melanomas in areas under the ozone hole. Countries seeing higher rates of melanoma are Australia and New Zealand. Since the research was based on observations of storm phenomena over the United States, it can be assumed that this situation is occurring the world over.
Increases in cancer are not the only health concern the world faces. “Unfortunately, most health effects have begun to be seen already. The question is one of intensity and frequency. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that anthropogenic climate change already claims over 150,000 lives annually.” Some of the diseases linked to climate flux include “cardiovascular mortality and respiratory illness due to heat waves, altered transmission of infectious diseases, and malnutrition due to crop failures.”
With a bow to naysayers, Dr. Akashah states “there is uncertainty in attributing the expansion or resurgence of diseases to climate change. But, this is largely due to the lack of long-term, high-quality data sets, as well as changes in immunity and drug resistance.” However, Dr. Akashah points out, “we do know enough to know that it is a problem and that we need to act on it now.”
What is being seen is “injuries due to extreme weather, air pollution-related effects : increased infectious diseases (water-, food-born like cholera, vector-born, for example, malaria, and zoonotic, that is, any disease from animals to human and vice versa like rabies.”
Asthma is increasing. In fact, in Florida it is due to an unusual source, “increased algal blooms (Red tide).” The progression of the health issues will change over time. “Some of these changes will have a slow onset. Initially, we will see higher acute asthma attacks, heat stroke, etc. Over time, these occurrences will become more frequent and more severe. This increase in intensity will coincide with more frequent severe weather events and natural disasters.”
Who are the most likely to be affected? “As per usual in situations of increased stress, it is the most vulnerable who will suffer most severely. We can make the correct assumption that these will be the poor, disenfranchised, older, and younger members of the population.” Climate change impacts those who are geographically vulnerable. This includes people who are in extreme climates like desert nations and those in arctic climates. But it also includes areas of low topography, like island nations and nations with high water tables such as Bangladesh.
Yet another locale that is vulnerable are sprawling urban areas. These areas “where trees and turf have been transformed into asphalt,” (cities include New York, Los Angeles and Dallas) are seeing what is called a “heat island effect.” What this means is that “these changes cause urban regions to become warmer than their rural surroundings, forming an “island” of higher temperatures.”
Why should health care workers be aware of the health effects of climate change? According to Dr. Akashah, “We need healthcare workers to be aware of these changes… to help track health trends and to identify and spur health communication towards vulnerable populations. But we also need their help as disasters and acute crises become more frequent.”
There are actions that can be done to help and Dr. Akashah is taking steps. “Most of the work I do now involves climate change adaptation – facing the inevitability of climate change in poor communities, especially.” She is attempting to create low cost solutions to flooding, drought and other consequences of climate change. “Often the best ideas come from the communities, themselves,” she states. “Our job is often to disseminate the knowledge. I think giving people a voice is the most important hurdle.”
To illustrate, Dr. Akashah told participants, “An example of the dissemination of community-originated ideas is raising ducks instead of chickens in flood-prone areas.” Dr. Akashah notes the many studies show the importance of listening and supporting communities, “especially when women are empowered with small funds for sustainable harvests…it improves both maternal and child mortality and increases the proliferation of sustainable farming practices.”
Action is important. Dr. Akashah suggests paying particular attention to sustainable development. “Sending donor funds to small sustainable entrepreneurships in these areas” can make a world of difference.
For more information on Mey Akashah, PhD please see her website: Mey Akashah
For a full transcript of the #hchlitss twitter chat please see: Health Communications, Health Literacy and Social Sciences blog.