A United Nations report this week warned that a warming planet will exacerbate existing health problems in the coming decades — and U.S. scientists will caution later this month that those and other public health concerns are imminent.
The third National Climate Assessment, a statutorily mandated report overseen by a cross-section of federal agencies, will provide an update on the status of global warming effects already observed in the United States and expected future trends.
Scientists have warned for years that more heat waves and extreme weather events could degrade human health, and the study will also focus on the indirect impacts that climate change will have on public health systems. The effects on public health provide the rationale for the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.
“The magnitude of these threats will be new and provide new challenges that we have to prepare for,” said Dr. George Luber, a lead author on the study and associate director for climate change at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
President Barack Obama’s climate action plan includes support for the Health and Human Services Department to help train local public-health professionals in handling the health impacts of warming and to promote resilience within communities. Centers for Disease Control pilot projects already under way in 16 states and two cities aim to help those governments apply climate science to predict and anticipate health impacts locally.
Congress funded the CDC’s climate and health program at $6 million for fiscal 2014, a slight increase over the $5.8 million provided in fiscal 2013. Nearly all of the money appropriated for the program is funneled to state and city health departments through grants, Luber said.
But funding for the National Center for Environmental Health that houses the program has fluctuated as Congress has tightened its purse strings. Some groups that work in tandem with federal authorities to help local health departments plan for climate impacts have suffered declines in CDC support.
“When we get support from the CDC, we put it to good use,” said David Dyjack, associate executive director of programs at the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
Exposure to air quality changes will be felt cumulatively by people with pre-existing conditions and by children and the elderly, Luber said. Those who are predisposed to pollen allergies are similarly affected by poor air quality from wildfires and high ozone concentrations — problems that will likely be heightened in Western states this year due to drought conditions.
The magnitude of extreme events will also stress the nation’s infrastructure in ways that pose different challenges, Luber said. When storms exceed historical norms, critical support systems built to withstand the weather of the 20th century often fail, he said, pointing to the 2012 derecho storm that knocked out portions of the Washington metro area’s emergency response network in 2012.
“Our job really is to find ways to bring all of this information into the context where action can then be made,” Luber said.