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A man wades through floodwaters in New Orleans, Louisiana.

A man wades through water in New Orleans, Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Extreme weather linked to climate change can leave behind standing water that contains harmful bacteria and other health hazards, one of the near-term impacts President Obama will stress in his new push for policy.

Photograph by Melanie Stetson Freeman, Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

Dan Stone

National Geographic

Published June 24, 2013

After five years of referring to climate change as a long-term climate and humanitarian problem, President Obama is trying a new strategy. In a speech Tuesday to sell a package of regulations to limit greenhouse gases from power plants, Obama will list the ways a warming planet impacts human health now, White House officials say.

The strategy may have legs. Despite the growing consensus among scientists of how humans are impacting the atmosphere, how to confront climate change—or in some cases, whether it even exists—has deadlocked along party lines. "Framing issues around some of the near-term impacts on families is probably a more effective way to make people understand the benefits of these changes," says Paul Billings, a vice president for the American Lung Association, who was invited by the White House to attend Tuesday's speech. (See related story: "California Tackles Climate Change, But Will Others Follow?")

The administration has directed several government agencies to work together on a wide-ranging effort to try to quantify the "social costs" of climate change, including health effects. (See related story: "Obama Pledges U.S. Action on Climate Change, With or Without Congress.")

Other climate experts are leaning toward the health impacts as well, curious whether reframing the issue could kickstart the national conversation. "As we clean up the energy sector's carbon dioxide, we also clean it up for [other pollutants like] sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides," which have been linked to respiratory diseases, says David Hawkins, director of climate programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

How is climate change expected to affect human health? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and climate experts illuminate the top five ways.

1) More heat waves, more heat-related deaths

Heat waves are the most deadly of any weather related events—more than hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and tornadoes combined. The CDC expects not just more waves of warm weather, but more record temperatures as well. Currently, things like heat strokes kill 700 people a year in the United States. The CDC says if current emissions hold steady, officials project that number to rise as high as 5,000 by 2050.

The heating has already begun. Last year was the hottest year ever recorded in the United States. The 12 hottest years on record came in the last 15 years. With the urban heat effect—in which dense cities and paved surfaces produce more heat than in rural areas—people in cities may feel greater impacts. (See related: "10 Ways Obama Could Fight Climate Change.")

2) More asthma and worse allergies

Higher average temperatures from climate change have been shown to increase plant metabolism, causing the increased release of pollens, fungi, and spores. More than 20 million Americans are affected by asthma, a number the National Institutes of Health expect to increase exponentially with every degree increase in ambient temperature.

A bigger concern might be the presence of airborne particulates from coal-fired power plants, which are the U.S.'s biggest emitters of carbon dioxide. The administration is likely to argue that cutting CO2 emissions from power plants would also be helping to reduce the release of respiratory irritants sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.

3) More mosquito bites and the diseases they carry

The relationship isn't completely understood and it depends on regional factors, but biologists have noted that as temperatures rise, the reproduction rates of parasites like malaria and West Nile virus also increase.

On top of that, mosquitoes and ticks tend to have larger appetites in warm weather, causing them to take more blood meals from unlucky mammals. The combination, says the CDC, is a scenario with the easier spread of diseases that ticks and mosquitoes spread.

4) Stressed agriculture, questionable nutrition

Longer growing seasons may be good for producing more food, but agriculture economists have warned that drastic fluctuations in year-to-year weather can overstress crops. In some regions, drought has been shown to encourage the reproduction of aphids and locusts, as well as several types of mold, that can hide inside many leafy crops. Those pests, some farmers fear, could lead to increased use of insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides. (See related Quiz: What You Don't Know About Food, Water, and Energy.)

In a study last year, the U.S. Climate Change Science Program indicated that an increase in sea-surface temperatures would lead to a proliferation of ocean bacteria species like Vibrio vulnificus and Vibrio parahaemolyticus that cause seafood-borne diseases. Most at risk, the study said, would be cultures heavily dependent on marine-based diets.

5) Contaminated water spreading pathogens

Climate change has already been linked to more extreme storms. Some of them, like Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy, have left entire cities underwater for days, allowing standing water to teem with bacteria and other pathogens. The impacts of standing water depend widely on the region's water and sewage treatment practices.

But scientists believe that new regions will be affected by floods and standing water. A 15-inch (38.1-centimeter) rise in sea level, the high end of what some models have suggested, would increase the annual number of people in the United States affected by coastal storm surges. It's now 50 million; by 2080, it could be as high as 250 million.

(See related blog post: "Obama and Keystone XL: The Moment of Truth?")

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

Follow Dan Stone on Twitter.

7 comments
Myron Mesecke
Myron Mesecke

The cooler decades of the 50s, 60s and 70s had more violent tornadoes than the warmer 80s, 90s and 2000s. That data is found at the NWS. 2012 set a new record for the fewest tornadoes in any July. We are currently setting a new record for the longest length of time since a major hurricane has hit the US. Last major hurricane was Wilma in 2005. Tropical cyclone energy went down during the 30 years of recent warming.

In 1954 three major hurricanes hit the US east coast. Sandy was no longer a hurricane when it hit the US last year.

What more and stronger storms are you speaking about?

More people die from cold weather than hot weather.

Malaria did not increase during the 30 years of warming.

CO2 is plant food. Plants grow stronger and faster with more CO2. Plants are also more water efficient and more drought tolerant with more CO2.

Floods may be appearing to get worse but that has nothing to do with what is in the air. It has to do with what is on the ground. As man builds houses, buildings, roads, etc more ground is covered. This leaves less open ground available to soak up rain water and flood waters. The result is more runoff leading to flash floods and increased flooding. It also restricts the replenishment of ground water.

Just because there are more people, and those more people are living in more and more areas that used to be unpopulated does not mean that weather is getting worse. It just means there are more people.

susan mullen
susan mullen

Mr. Stone, how do you define man caused global warming? My understanding is it's defined as rising global temperatures caused by human CO2. Are you aware that global temperatures have remained flat for at least 15 years as acknowledged by the UK Met Office, UN IPCC chief Pachauri, NASA, NOAA, and others? This despite global CO2 continuing to rise during this time. Are you aware that US CO2 has fallen over the past two decades, has plunged since 2006 and is heading lower? And that China's CO2 continues to skyrocket, that US CO2 could go to zero and it would have little to no effect on global CO2 at this point? If global warming is not happening, and especially if US CO2 is so low, none of the things you talk about in your article taking place in the US can be caused by global warming or man caused climate change.

susan mullen
susan mullen

Mr. Stone, how do you define man caused global warming? My understanding is it's defined as rising global temperatures caused by human CO2. Are you aware that global temperatures have remained flat for at least 15 years as acknowledged by the UK Met Office, UN IPCC chief Pachauri, NASA, NOAA, and others? This despite global CO2 continuing to rise during this time. Are you aware that US CO2 has fallen over the past two decades, has plunged since 2006 and is heading lower? And that China's CO2 continues to skyrocket, that US CO2 could go to zero and it would have little to no effect on global CO2 at this point? If global warming is not happening, and especially if US CO2 is so low, none of the things you talk about in your article taking place in the US can be caused by global warming or man caused climate change.

Zoltan Ban
Zoltan Ban

Yes, these are all good additional reasons to fight against climate change.  There is only one problem however, which environmentalists are refusing to own up to, while they push politicians to engage in unilateral and ineffective actions of self-sacrifice for the global good.  John Nash's (A beautiful mind), game theory tells us that it is ineffective and self-harming, because of the "prisoner dilemma", so why do environmentalists continue to push for it?  If people don't wake up soon, environmentalism will continue to be discredited, and even hated to the point where no initiative for sustainability will be accepted by society anymore.  It will be viewed as a fool's endeavor.  It is time to dump the idealism and adopt some common-sense ideas folks, because the way things are now, environmentalists are becoming the worst enemy of the environment.

http://zoltansustainableecon.blogspot.com/2013/06/john-nash-versus-environmental-movement.html


Paul Loovis
Paul Loovis

I agree that not enough has been done to reach across the aisle on this issue, but it seems unlikely that Republicans would be willing to work with the President, even on the most innocuous initiatives to mitigate the effects of climate change. Politically, unilateral executive action has the potential to grease the wheels by forcing Congress to put climate change on the front burner, even if in opposition. In any case, the potentially devastating costs related to climate change are so great, that we must act now, even if the political price is through the roof, and even if it provides grist for deniers.  

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

@Paul Loovis But people have been saying that "We must act now!" for years Paul. They'll be saying exactly the same in thirty years' time and nothing will have changed - except there'll be more people, more cars, bigger cities, more housing, less natural environment, less species etc. 

The fact is that no one is prepared to dump their car tomorrow morning and pedal around on a pushbike. No one is prepared to never board a plane again, either for business or vacation, no one is prepared to stop switching on their lights, cooking on gas or electricity. No one will dump their dishwasher tomorrow and no one is prepared to stop buying manufactured and imported goods in their stores - food, toiletries, clothing, furniture, TVs, refrigerators, kiddies toys etc.

 It will be exactly the same in thirty years' time. Those youngsters leaving school today will be driving around in cars which they will consider absolutely essential or their right to own. They will still jet off on vacation as their right. They will still buy a dishwasher rather than wash up in the sink, they'll still purchase TVs and cell phones and live the Western life-style as their right. 

It's quite apparent to me that humans stepped beyond the tipping point long ago - probably when domestic electricity or motor vehicles became common. There was no way back after that. All this talk is just that - talk. These people will still be talking when they retire and leave the same problem to the next generation.  

 

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