To talk more about the study, and what it means for the Gulf Coast, reporter Travis Lux spoke with Dr. Jeremy Hess. Hess is a professor of emergency medicine, environmental health, and global health at the University of Washington, and is one of the authors of the report.
The following interview and transcript have been edited for clarity:
Q: One of the takeaways of the report seems to be that children and the elderly are the most vulnerable to health changes brought about by climate change. Why is that exactly?
Partially because they don’t have necessarily as much control over their environment. Kids go outside to play after school and may not have information about ozone levels in the air, or pollen levels.
Same thing with elders. They may or may not get warnings about extreme heat. They may be living on fixed incomes. And so even if they do have air conditioning, they’re reluctant to turn it on when it gets really hot. They also may be on some medications that make it a little harder for them to deal effectively with extreme heat -- like make it a little harder to sweat. So by the time somebody else notices that it may be too late.
Q: I want to talk a little more specifically about local impacts. I’m talking to you from the Gulf South, near the Gulf of Mexico. Generally when I think about climate change, I’m thinking about extreme storms and flooding and heat and that kind of thing. In a warm environment like the Gulf South, how’s that going to affect people’s health? Particularly, children’s health?
Well, it will make a number of things that are already present, worse. It’s already hot there. It’s already humid. Heat exposure is a fact of life. But it’s not just heat.
We see more air pollution, we see more ozone pollution. We see more particulate air pollution. That worsens people’s lung function. We see changes in the ecology of infectious diseases. So, mosquito borne disease that brings us dengue, zika, and west nile. The mosquito vectors are already present, but now the breeding season is longer and we’re more likely to see these outbreaks last longer - they'll start earlier and affect more people.
Q: I feel a sense of doom -- and I think a lot of other people do, too -- when I think about the future in terms of climate change. Is there anything in this report that suggests either (A) what people can do, or (B) gives reason for hope?
Oh, indeed. I, like you, feel that way sometimes. I spend most of my time studying this and it is quite worrisome. “Doom” is maybe a little too strong, because we’ve still got a lot of options for turning things around.
The report highlighted that we’ve got an unprecedented opportunity to act on climate change, and to reduce our emissions further, invest much more heavily in renewables. Those investments have an immediate, substantial impact on people’s health. It reduces air pollution, it reduces cardiovascular disease, it reduces diabetes. It increases life expectancy. Those investments yield health benefits that, if you account for them, actually pay for all the mitigation.
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