By Jaclyn Zubrzycki
Climate change is a global issue. But public health and government officials are increasingly emphasizing that climate change has consequences for human health—and that climate-related health consequences won’t be distributed equally.
Health advocates and researchers caution that Coloradans with low incomes, those who work outside, children, the elderly, those who live close to wildfire hazards, and those with respiratory, nervous system or cardiovascular health issues will likely suffer as temperatures rise.
Colorado’s average temperature has increased 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 30 years, and is predicted to increase by as many as 5 degrees by 2050, according to a 2014 report by Colorado climate scientists for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“A majority [of Colorado residents] recognize that climate change is happening,” said Chrissy Esposito, a data visualization and policy analyst at the Colorado Health Institute (a Trust grantee). “But a smaller portion understand that it could harm them.”
That gap in understanding led the American Public Health Association to declare 2017 the year of climate change and health. It also led to a number of national and local initiatives to help understand and manage the challenges, including a new collaborative research initiative called the University of Colorado Consortium on Climate Change and Health.
A new report from the Colorado Health Institute describes how the health consequences of climate change are already starting to play out in Colorado.
The report focuses on three results of climate change that are likely to affect Coloradans’ health most directly: air pollution, rising temperatures and wildfires. (Issues that are of serious concern in other parts of the country, like sea-level rise and the increase in the range of mosquitos that carry malaria, aren’t immediate concerns in Colorado.)
Rosemary Rochford, PhD, professor of immunology and microbiology at the University of Colorado Denver and the leader of the new University of Colorado research consortium, said that climate change is often a “force multiplier” for diseases or other health issues: While it doesn’t necessarily cause them, it strengthens them. For example, the bark beetle that has destroyed many trees in Colorado might have a longer breeding season, kill more trees, and thus make nearby residents more vulnerable to wildfires. Or heat waves that already cause deaths among the elderly, children and those who can’t afford air conditioning might become more frequent or stronger.
Rochford and the authors of the Colorado Health Institute report described some ways the consequences of climate change might play out unequally.
Those who can’t afford air conditioning will feel the effects of heat and ozone more. In Denver, more than half of public schools don’t yet have full air conditioning—and almost all of the schools without air conditioning are in low-income areas.
People who work outside will encounter heat and air pollution more than those who work inside. One Colorado researcher even found higher rates of kidney disease among young men working outside in a warming climate, namely due to heat stress and dehydration.
Longer growing seasons and the combination of heat and pollution will take a larger toll on asthma and allergy sufferers. That also means those who can’t afford access to care for these conditions are likely to suffer more.
Rochford said that some of the science on how climate change will affect health is still developing: There are no hard figures for how many additional cases of asthma are due to climate change, for example. But her hope is that the new research group will bring together insights from medicine, public health and climate science to help develop a more thorough and accurate picture of the issue.
Then, she said, “we figure out how we mitigate, how we adapt.”
Michele Lueck, CEO of the Colorado Health Institute, said that Colorado is ahead of many states when it comes to figuring out how to become less dependent on fossil fuel: Denver, Aspen and Boulder are among the local governments that have developed climate change plans, and the state has its own plan to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
What’s less clear is how the state and communities are preparing for the health consequences of climate change. Efforts like assuring there are providers who can deal with more cases of asthma, or programs that manage wildfires or prevent air pollution, will become increasingly important, Lueck said.
As the climate changes, “local communities will want to ask: ‘Am I taking care of myself, or my community?’” Lueck said.
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