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Heat Advisory: Protecting Health on a Warming Planet
by Dr. Alan Lockwood

Drawing on peer-reviewed scientific and medical research, Dr. Lockwood meticulously details the symptoms of climate change and their medical side effects.

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Comments on the proposed Carbon Pollution Standards for New Power Plants

Below, Barbara Gottlieb’s recent testimony to the EPA about the health threats posed by climate change and the urgency of reducing carbon emissions from coal plants. Please send your own comments to the EPA, using our easy online form.

Comments on the proposed Carbon Pollution Standards for New Power Plants
by  Barbara Gottlieb
Director for Environment & Health
Physicians for Social Responsibility

Docket ID:  EPA-HQ-OAR-2013-0495      

February 6, 2014

Good morning.  My name is Barbara Gottlieb.  I am Director of Environment & Health at Physicians for Social Responsibility, a national organization of 50,000 physicians, nurses, public health professionals, and citizen supporters.  On their behalf, I thank the Environmental Protection Agency for its work to place limits on carbon emissions from new power plants, and for this opportunity to comment on those proposed rules.

Science has established that climate change is real, it is happening now, and the burning of fossil fuels is a major cause.  Thus, in order to slow and ultimately to reverse climate change, we need to reduce carbon emissions from fossil-fueled power plants.

Climate change is often characterized as an environmental problem.  But let me present it as a health problem – in fact, one of the gravest threats to human health and survival.  Because time is brief, I’ll talk about just four ways that climate change kills.  (PSR is also submitting a longer written statement to the docket that provides more extensive information.)

I’ll start with heat effects and extreme weather events.  As world temperatures increase, intense heat waves become more common – and extreme heat kills more U.S. residents than do lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined.  Exposure to prolonged extreme heat, as in a heat wave, can cause heat cramps, then heat exhaustion, then heat stroke, which can be fatal.  The Chicago heat wave of 1995 killed over 700 people.  The European heat wave of 2003 killed an unimaginable 35,000 to 75,000 people (estimates vary).  Heat also increases the formation of ground-level ozone, which triggers asthma attacks, increases asthma rates, and exacerbates heart and lung disease. Heat contributes to wildfires, which can kill outright and release particulate matter, a dangerous respiratory irritant, as well as carcinogenic hydrocarbons. 

With climate change, extreme weather events are increasing in frequency.  We witnessed the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast, and of Hurricane Sandy here on the east coast:  drownings and deaths… hospitals evacuated, patients evacuated down dark staircases… displacement and homelessness, social stress and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Even smaller storms cause flooding and can contaminate water with toxic chemicals and sewage, which can cause outbreaks of cryptosporidium, E.coli, giardia, shigella, typhoid, and viruses such as hepatitis A.  While the U.S. generally enjoys reliable sources of potable water, contamination of recreational waters from extreme weather events remains a significant means of disease transmission.

Climate change also increases the threat of insect-borne disease.  Insect hosts and the infectious agents they carry are cold-blooded, so a change in temperature affects them in many ways. It may shift their geographic range, as seems to be happening with the deer tick, carrier of Lyme disease.  Mosquitoes, which can carry malaria, dengue fever, West Nile Virus, and other diseases, are highly sensitive to temperature changes. Higher temperatures boost their reproductive rates, make them bite more frequently, lengthen their breeding season, and shorten the time it takes for the pathogens they bear to mature to an infectious state.  Globally, malaria is a major killer, especially of children. An estimated 3.3 billion people were at risk of malaria in 2011. 

Finally, climate change is threatening the Earth’s ability to produce food.  Estimates vary, but climate experts predict that for every 1.8°F increase in global average surface temperature, we can expect about a ten percent decline in yields of the world’s major grain crops – corn, soybean, rice and wheat.  

In some plants, like wheat, soybeans and rice, higher CO2 levels actually increase growth.  But most experts agree that the CO2-related benefits will be outweighed by other, negative effects of climate change.   Higher temperatures decrease rates of photosynthesis, reduce soil moisture, increase water demand, and lead to increased survival of plant pests, diseases and weeds – all of which combine to reduce final yields.

Most models only consider the effect of rising temperatures and CO2 levels on crop growth.  Yet climate change will disrupt food production in other ways, such as more droughts; more frequent, severe, and longer-lasting heat waves; damaging rains and storms; reduced water available for irrigation; soil salination from rising sea levels and storm surges; thriving plant pests and diseases, and higher ozone levels that damage plants and reduce crop yields.

That is not the world we want for ourselves, our children or our communities.  It is vital that the EPA, to protect our health and wellbeing from the ravages of climate change, set the strongest possible limits on carbon pollution from power plants.  In addition, we urge you to encourage states, as they establish the best systems for emissions reductions,  to increase energy efficiency and expand their use of solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources.  That is the way to a bright future -- one that reduces climate disruption, cuts conventional pollutants, and provides great gains to the health of us all.  Thank you.

Page Updated February 7, 2014

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