I’m calling it the Atlanta miracle. Three weeks after the Centers for Disease Control abruptly canceled a conference on climate change and health for fear of running afoul of the new administration (not the officially-stated reason), a team of stakeholders led by former Vice President Al Gore pulled off a one-day conference—the Climate and Health Meeting—at the Carter Center last Thursday featuring some of the world’s leading experts on the topic.
As former President Jimmy Carter told the 340 attendees halfway through the event, “The CDC has to be cautious; the Carter Center does not.”
At the end of the day, I came away with the assessment that the impact of climate change on health is the most powerful frame to generate public support to mitigate global warming. It’s about people, not polar bears (not that we don’t care about polar bears).
You can watch a recording of the conference on Climate Reality’s website.
The best presentation of the day came from Gore himself, winner of the Nobel, Oscar and Grammy trifecta. He led off the meeting with a 30-minute presentation chock-full of eye-opening talking points, most of which, he was quick to point out, were derived from the many experts presenting at the meeting:
- “We are pushing many people outside the envelope within which we have evolved and within which we thrive.”
- The U.S. Surgeon General has said climate change is a serious and immediate threat to human health.
- Higher temperatures drive vectors—mosquitos and ticks that transmit diseases—into new territory, increase their reproduction rates, and increase the frequency of “blood meals.”
- Warmer weather shortens the disease incubation period in vectors, the amount of time it takes for them to be infectious.
- Humidity levels above 60% increase lifespan of malaria-carrying mosquitos.
- Dengue is spread by the same mosquitos that carry Zika. There are 37 million dengue infections every year in India now.
- Reemergence of malaria in central China is attributed to heavier rainfall and increases in temperatures close to water bodies.
- Water-borne diseases—cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid fever, e. coli—are affected by climate change.
- Two-thirds of water-borne disease outbreaks in the U.S. have been preceded by extreme precipitation events.
- Warmer temperatures increase algal blooms that infect seafood with neurotoxins.
The threat from heat
One of the biggest threats from climate change, of course, is the increase in extreme heat events. The 2003 heat wave in Europe killed 70,000 people. On May 19 last year, India hit an all-time heat record of 123.8 degrees Fahrenheit. The poor, the elderly and children are the most vulnerable to heat stress, and with nighttime temperatures increasing more rapidly than daytime temperatures, those with no air conditioning get no relief from the heat.
The most shocking development is extreme heat waves “beyond the limit of human survival,” which will become normal if carbon emissions are not significantly reduced. On July 31, 2015, the heat index—combination of temperature and humidity—in Bandar Mahshahr, Iran, reached 165F. No human being can live more than a few hours outdoors under those conditions.
Gore quoted Jos Lelieveld, director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, who said, “In the future, the climate in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa could render some regions uninhabitable, which will surely contribute to the pressure to migrate.”
“The refugee crisis that is now destabilizing Europe could become significantly worse,” Gore said.
The fuels we burn that produce greenhouse gas emissions also produce other pollutants that are detrimental to our health. Coal use—from extraction to burning—costs the U.S. $261 billion a year in health care costs alone. The amount of mercury near the surface of oceans has tripled as a result of human pollution. China’s air pollution has cut life expectancy an average of 5.5 years in the northern part of the country.
Health problems associated with allergens will rise as grains of pollen per million are expected to triple from 2000 levels by the year 2040. Ragweed is expected to increase 320 percent by 2100.
Communicating the risk
While the information presented at the Climate and Health Meeting was powerful and lent a newfound urgency to mitigate global warming, that information needs to be related beyond the audience in attendance at the Carter Center. Communicating the climate-health connection—the topic of the final panel—was therefore most useful from the perspective of generating political will for climate action.
Dr. Ed Maibach from George Mason University said climate change is a complex issue, and that’s not good from a communication standpoint. Messages need to be simple and clear, repeated often and come from a variety of trusted sources (healthcare professionals fall under that category).
It may sound counterintuitive, but “the less we say, the more we are heard,” said Maibach. After doing research and settling on the simple messages you need to relate, repeat them early and often. If messages are simple and clear, other trusted voices—even members of your target audience—will start repeating them to their friends and family, co-workers, and others. Make that your goal.
Research shows that most Americans…
- Are unable to name a single way that climate change harms our health, or identify which groups of people are more at risk.
- See climate change as a distant problem—distant in space (not here), time (not now), and species (not ours).
- See climate change as an “environmental” problem and/or a “science” problem, but much less so as a “people” problem. In short, we have a framing problem.
Three simple messages to reinforce and amplify:
- 97% of climate scientists are convinced human-caused climate change is happening.
- Climate change is harming our health now. All of us can be harmed, but some are most likely to be harmed: children, pregnant women, student athletes, the elderly, the sick, and the poor.
- The most important actions we can take are to reduce our energy waste and fully embrace clean energy. When we do that, we clean up our air and water, and we all immediately enjoy better health.
Dr. Susan Pacheco from the University of Texas Health Science Center said that personal narratives are important in communicating the health impact of climate change. Putting a human face on climate change is an effective way to engage people.
Jerry Taylor from Niskanen Center said that we need to get Republicans on board, and that they are most influenced by the elites in their party. Republicans currently holding office dispute the science, not because they don’t accept the studies, but because they fear doing so would lead to policies that will enlarge government and destroy capitalism. We can bring conservative elites on board, he said, not by arguing the science, but by talking about risk management and market-based solutions.
In wrapping up the meeting, Gore said there was reason for hope. He pointed out that as time goes by, technology improves while the price goes down and that this is the case with solar, wind, batteries and energy efficiency technologies. “The latest contracts for the sale of electricity from solar panels is at a rate less than one half of the cost of producing electricity from burning coal or gas… We’re going to see an incredibly rapid transition.”
“You have to include legitimate hope that this problem can be solved,” said Gore. “Well, good news! It can be. It can be solved with millions of jobs, with less pollution, with better health outcomes…
“One of the things I learned today that was really driven home is that the health consequences of climate change offer a way to communicate directly with and connect with people that may be more powerful than any other framing of the issue. And the health co-benefits of addressing the climate crisis are equally as powerful.”
Referring to the new administration, Gore said, “We are now facing a new headwind, but I can tell you this: I’ve been involved in this effort for a long time, and this is not the first time that there has been an unexpected obstacle. We will win this. But in order to win this we have to personally take stock of what is going on in Washington, DC, and we have to each one of us dig deep, double down, and decide that we ARE going to win this. If you will make that decision, we WILL win this struggle.”