By Kristin Jones
Climate change can appear remote. A polar bear adrift on a shrinking iceberg is a depressing image, sure, but it may always not seem relevant. Unfortunately, climate change is also affecting our health and the health of our families. Colorado’s average temperature has risen two degrees in the last 30 years, and the role of climate change in this increase is clear.
Not all Coloradans are equally impacted, however. You may be more or less affected by it depending on where you live, how much money you make, and even your race and ethnicity. African American and Indigenous people, for instance, disproportionately experience some of the diseases that are made worse by hot weather and air pollution, like diabetes and asthma.
A recent tool published by the Colorado Health Institute (CHI), a grantee of The Colorado Trust, dives deeper into the geographic disparities of climate change. CHI’s new Health and Climate Index rates risk by exposure, demographics and readiness. That is, exposure to effects like very high temperature and wildfire risk; particularly vulnerable demographics like children, elders, people who live in poverty or have chronic diseases; and readiness, measured by public beliefs about global warming and public health department plans to fight or adapt to it.
Chrissy Esposito, a researcher at CHI and one of the lead authors of the index, hopes that the tool can be used to spark action on areas of local concern in Colorado.
“You don’t often hear about climate change as a public health threat,” says Esposito.
But the data are clear. No matter where you live in the state, you can probably recognize some of the effects of climate change in your own life and community. Here are a few of them, adapted from CHI research and with original reporting:
1. Neighborhoods are getting hotter
Denver is particularly affected by the urban heat island effect; it’s nearly five degrees hotter than rural areas in the state. Climate change will mean more very hot days, which is hardest on the young and old, and on people with respiratory conditions.
Not all neighborhoods are equally at risk. Neighborhoods with fewer trees, or where most people don’t have air conditioning, have a tougher time as the heat rises. In Denver, many of these same neighborhoods are primarily low-income communities of color.
But Denver isn't the only place affected by extreme heat. In 2017, people in northwestern Colorado experienced 72 extreme heat days, according to CHI.
2. Trees are disappearing
When there aren’t enough very cold days, the threat from tree-killing insects can spread. Warmer weather can broaden the range of pests like the emerald ash borer and the mountain pine beetle, while drought can tear down forests' defenses.
The discovery of the ash borer in Boulder in 2013 sparked a great deal of concern—and an emergency quarantine in the area aimed at preventing further infestation. Around 15 percent of the urban trees in Colorado are ash trees that are vulnerable to attack—including an estimated 1.45 million trees in the Denver metro area alone, according to the Colorado Department of Agriculture. The loss of tree canopy in our cities could multiply the urban heat island effect, says Esposito.
In the mountains, the devastation from the pine beetle has been evident for years. Swaths of dead pine trees make many areas more susceptible to wildfire.
3. Wildfires are hurting people
More hot, dry days also increase the risk of wildfire, even as more people are living near forested areas. Development in these areas is known as the wildland-urban interface, and it’s growing in Colorado—disrupting the natural cycle of fire and regeneration, and putting people at risk.
Even when they don’t kill people, wildfires can affect health in a number of ways. They can degrade air quality to a radius of thousands of miles, hurting people with respiratory conditions, children and elders the most.
And wildfires can be traumatic for people in their path. A fire in southwest Eagle County in July 2018 destroyed three homes, and could have done far worse were it not for successful firefighting efforts. Still, the fires forced evacuations in El Jebel and Basalt, filled the air with smoke and wore on the whole community, says Eagle County Commissioner Jill Ryan.
“A lot of people were displaced, and were fearful that their houses would burn,” says Ryan. “They were also stressed out from not going outside.”
Nationwide, people of color are more vulnerable to the devastating effects of wildfires, according to a recent study by researchers from the University of Washington and the Nature Conservancy. The study considered not only who lives in areas of high wildfire risk (those census tracts are disproportionately white) but also the resources needed to prepare for and recover from a fire. Indigenous people are particularly at risk, they found, because many reservations are at risk of wildfire both geographically and economically.
4. Drought is hurting farming economies
Last year's drought was especially extreme in the southwestern part of the state. Residents of Dove Creek, an agricultural community that traditionally relies on dryland (or non-irrigated) farming of staples like pinto and Anasazi beans, were among those hardest hit. Farming communities on the Eastern Plains have also been deeply affected by drought in recent years. While this year's heavy snowfall brought relief from the drought to most of the state, climate change will continue to make drought conditions more likely.
Drought's blow to a local farming economy has a cascading effect on all sorts of things that ultimately impact health, from income to education to community ties.
5. Our drinking water is under threat
Drought is not the only way climate change puts our drinking water at risk. “After a wildfire, water can sweep down and there’s nothing catching that debris, sending sediment into the water,” says Esposito.
In this part of the West, the disappearance of our drinking water poses an existential threat. (If that doesn’t bother you, note that beer could also get really expensive.)
6. It’s contributing to chronic diseases
Changes in temperature, wind patterns and humidity can increase pollutants like carbon dioxide and particulate matter, as well as ozone, CHI found. Ground ozone levels go up in the summer when high temperatures cook chemicals and pollutants in the air, says Esposito.
People with asthma and respiratory ailments like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease can have a particularly hard time breathing when air quality is poor.
Breathing in air that is high in particulates can also affect how people produce insulin, leading to the onset of diabetes, says Esposito. Globally, air pollution contributes to more than 3 million cases of diabetes a year, a recent study estimated. At the same time, people with diabetes have a hard time staying cool on hot days because their sweat glands are affected.
Hot days can also hurt people with cardiovascular disease, making it harder for their bodies to pump blood. With extremely hot temperatures, “working out or doing activity outside can increase your risk of a cardiac event,” says Esposito. Air pollution can also damage heart tissue, she says.
At the same time, there are risks to staying inside—especially when it inhibits the kind of exercise everyone needs to stay healthy.
Three things you can do about it
It may be too late to reverse the effects of climate change.
But it’s not too late to save lives. Climate change can still be slowed. Esposito suggests three ways that we can fight it.
1. Talk about it
Not all Coloradans agree that climate change is real. Even among those who do, says Esposito, the conversation about climate change is rarely about its health impacts.
Have a conversation with a friend or co-worker. How are you personally affected by climate change? Your family? Your community? Maybe your house is within the wildland-urban interface, or your local public health agency doesn’t have a readiness plan.
Not sure whether the air is safe to breathe? You can sign up for air quality alerts from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment here. The health and climate index offers a place to start conversations about conditions where you live.
2. Act locally
What’s your city or county doing to fight climate change? Could your local leaders and national representatives be doing more?
It’s rare for politicians to run on a platform of fighting climate change, so it may take a little digging to find out where your elected officials stand on this issue, and how they are addressing it. Give them a call.
Local actions can make a difference. Esposito points to the example of Denver’s green roof ballot initiative; voters in 2017 made an effort to mitigate the heat island effect by mandating heat-absorbing green spaces atop new constructions.
3. Take individual actions, collectively
One person’s actions won’t make much difference on climate change. Unless a lot of people are acting at once. Luckily, there are plenty of things all of us can do.
Eat less meat. Take the bus. Wash your clothes in cold instead of hot water. Upgrade to a smart thermostat or more efficient appliances.
If you’re feeling flush, buy an electric car while you can still take advantage of state and federal tax breaks.
If you have a lawn, consider replacing all or part of it with water-wise flowers, shrubs and grasses.
All these steps have the potential to preserve the resources we have, protect our families' health and slow climate change.