Climate change and your health

Community COVID-19 Featured

By Dr. T. Jock Murray

and Janet Murray

Remember the story of the frog and hot water? If you put a frog in boiling water he immediately jumps out, but put it in tepid water, and slowly heat the water, the frog passively sits there until he dies. We are slowly boiling frogs in a warming planet.

The current pandemic of Covid-19 is a serious crisis but likely over in a few years. Lurking over us is the even more deadly long-term threat of climate change. Global warming is not only a threat to the planet but to our health.

For a half century the scientists have been telling us, the frogs, that the water of the planet is warming. We were not uncomfortable, so we did nothing. Didn’t we always have floods and droughts and melting glaciers? Now experts and world organizations are beginning to yell at us about the dangers, but we say, “Well, it may be a concern, but this sunny day would be nice for a picnic.” A few, including some politicians, deny it is a problem at all, and besides, doing something about it would be expensive and affect jobs.

In an earlier column we talked about the determinants of health. Climate change affects many of them — poverty levels, clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food, and secure shelter. It will also affect the economy, infrastructure maintenance, social programs, and the ability to sustain a robust health care system.

The evidence for global warming and the resulting disastrous effects are undeniable. It is expected that this year will be the hottest in recorded history. Each of the last decades has been warmer than the one before it and warmer than any decade in the last century and a half. This week the temperature in Death Valley is the highest ever recorded on earth. This month Siberia, a region we associate with intolerable freezing weather, is experiencing the hottest temperatures (38 degrees) ever experienced north of the Arctic Circle. After years of drought, the hills of California are on fire. This month almost half of the Milne Ice Shelf, the size of Manhattan, the last Canadian fully intact ice shelf, collapsed into the sea, and more is expected to break off soon. These are not normal weather variations, but as they happen incrementally, we frogs passively watch the news, then change the dial to the next episode of “Schitt’s Creek”. We ignore what’s happening because this has been a dry, hot summer, not good for the farmers, but great for camping and the beach. We just try not to be bitten by insects that are new to our area, or the white sharks that are more frequent in our waters.

Effects of climate change on the environment

Everything connects to everything else, and the extreme weather events, rising sea levels, floods, and droughts all cause damage to community infrastructure and make it more difficult to keep the cogs of a complex community turning. Many areas of the world, including southern USA, only manage because of air conditioning in every home and building, access to massive amounts of power, which generates more greenhouse gasses and access to large amounts of diverted water. This is not sustainable.

We watch newscasts of floods in India, China and Japan, but don’t notice that floods are the most common natural disaster in Canada, and five of the most destructive floods in our history have happened in the last 10 years. As I write this, China is experiencing the worst flooding in decades. Australia had a 19-year drought, the worst in a thousand years, followed by a series of flooding, the worst in a half century. The same paradox is occurring in China with severe droughts and destructive floods.

Effects of climate change on health

Deaths from heat waves increase each year, mostly in the elderly. We are already seeing the spread of infectious disease farther north, especially those that are spread by insects and contaminated water. The WHO has predicted major increases in diarrheal diseases with effects on malnutrition, development and cognitive change in children. They calculate that if the expected rise in global temperature is 2-3 degrees then millions more will die of malaria and other tropical diseases, some in areas that did not have these diseases before. A Canadian government report suggests that if nothing changes (if the politicians and the population continue to be frogs), the planet may be six degrees warmer by 2100, which makes most of the world uninhabitable. If we think we are doing OK, we should think about the future of our grandchildren. They trust us to do the best for them. They know we will make any sacrifice to keep them safe. Will we fail them by leaving them a world they can’t live in?

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Political inaction is hurting us

Our political leaders know the problem, mention it in speeches, but are reluctant to act. When 187 nations signed the Kyoto Accord to limit greenhouse gases, the USA would not sign. When then-president Obama, along with 197 nations, signed the Paris Agreement to address climate change, President Trump later vowed to cancel the USA out, and he continues to roll back many of the environmental controls and regulations developed over the last 50 years, all to foster the interests of the oil, coal and forestry industries that are contributing to the problem.

The ironic truth is that the greatest contributors to global warming are the richer countries who also block or drag their feet on controlling greenhouse gases, but the ones who will suffer most are the poorer countries who contribute a small fraction of the problem and are least likely to be able to manage the damage of climate change. And when they become climate refugees, moving to survive, how do you think they will be greeted by the more affluent countries? Then we will see social unrest, riots, military reaction and revolution.

We are also part of the problem. We might give up plastic straws in restaurants, but don’t ask us to do the hard stuff. Despite the dramatic slide show of Al Gore, the repeated warnings of David Suzuki and the pronouncements of the Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization, the public response has been disturbingly underwhelming.

Action is needed now

We need action on greenhouse gases. We know what to do but are reluctant to make the necessary sacrifices. It is unfortunate that so many want to ignore the evidence of climate change. In an earlier column we wrote about the importance of critical thinking and the need to know how to examine evidence. Step one in this crisis, and it is a crisis, is to acknowledge the evidence. Step two is to commit to doing something about it. The water is getting hot.

Dr. T. Jock Murray is a graduate of Pictou Academy and former Dean of Medicine at Dalhousie University. Janet Murray is a graduate of Mount Saint Vincent, majoring in philosophy and a diploma in journalism. She is former Chair of the Board of Governors of Mount Saint Vincent University.