Broader Public Health Perspective Urged

Panel: Improve Reporting on Full Range of Public Health Impacts

Covering only the direct health impacts of climate change misses half the story, a panel advises reporters at SEJ’s annual conference.

LUBBOCK, TX — Katharine Hayhoe, a climatologist, says global impacts from climate change will affect human health in ways not yet imagined.

For journalists reporting on the intersection of climate change and human health, covering only the top three direct impacts — illness and mortality from heat and cold extremes, air quality and respiratory health, and geographic shifts in infectious diseases — means half the story remains untold. Hayhoe says these indirect impacts could dwarf the current focus of climate change-health reporting.

Katharine Hayhoe urges media to go beyond just ‘direct’ health effects in reporting on climate change impacts.

Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center and associate professor at Texas Tech University, joined two other climate and health experts on a panel discussion at the annual meeting of the Society of Environmental Journalists. “Climate change is going to affect our food supply and water resources. It is going to lead to floods and droughts. It will impact our infrastructures, and the potential impacts of these things far exceeds the three things we mostly commonly talk about,” Hayhoe said.

Consider parched, dry soil that leads to famine; torrents from floods that ruin infrastructure and disrupt transportation; and extreme weather that causes injuries and shuts down hospitals.

Much of the health and climate change literature features solid science on direct impacts from climate change, and the most up-to-date information is summarized in the Climate Stabilization Report of the National Academy of Sciences. But much larger issues are now coming into focus.

“The impact these things have on human health far exceeds the direct health impacts. Think of how famines and coastal flooding could displace millions of climate refugees. When you have a country disrupted, the first thing to go is public health infrastructure,” said Hayhoe. While health professionals are increasing their focus on climate-health issues, international relief and development agencies and international security also are joining forces.

Direct Effects from Increased Heat

Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist in the public health program with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said the next annual meeting of the American Public Health Association, in San Francisco October 27 to 31, includes nearly 50 panels and presentations dealing with climate change-health issues — evidence, she said, that the next generation of researchers is zeroing in on this issue.

Knowlton discussed direct health effects of heat illness and heat-related death. In 2009, Knowlton and the California Department of Public Health published a study of the health impacts of an intense, two-week long 2006 heatwave in California. That study was one of the first comprehensive examinations of statewide data concerning heat-related deaths and illnesses. During the record-breaking heatwave, more than 600 people died, hospital emergency departments had 16,000 more visits than usual, and 1,200 extra hospitalizations occurred. Costs from that heat wave are estimated at $5.3 billion.

Kim Knowlton on communicating threats from climate change: ‘We are trying, but we clearly haven’t done a good enough job yet …’

Knowlton said that health costs associated with energy sources, and thus part of the climate change equation, should factor into the climate change economic impact estimations. In 2011, Knowlton, NRDC staff, and university economists studied health costs from six extreme weather events between 2002 and 2008. The tally totaled $14 billion.

Writer and session moderator Francesca Lyman asked the panel if public health agencies are doing a good enough job communicating dire threats from climate change. Knowlton responded, “We are trying, but we clearly haven’t done a good enough job yet … I am biased because I am a health scientist. I think it may be that we are not communicating well enough and strong enough about where we live. It’s a global issue, but we need to say, ‘Here are the effects in your region’ and ‘what is happening to you and your family day to day relates to climate change.’”

The NRDC website now has maps outlining six main ways climate change threatens human health in one’s own backyard, either by state or zipcode.

Increasing Range for Emerging Diseases

USGS’s Jonathan Sleeman: ‘Too much is at stake for us to fail.’

Jonathan Sleeman, director of the National Wildlife Health Center at the U.S. Geological Survey, discussed how emerging diseases are shared responsibilities between wildlife health and public health systems. He explained that climate change is one of the drivers of disease.

An unprecedented number of diseases — such as SARS, West Nile Virus, Lyme disease, tick-borne encephalitis, brain worm infections, White Nose Syndrome in bats — are now having economic and profound impacts, causing human deaths, human pandemics, wildlife extinctions and loss, Sleeman said.

One disease of increasing concern is dengue fever. As temperatures get warmer, certain species will migrate to new areas and carry disease with them. “Looking at where mosquitoes are now in the U.S., they don’t live long enough for dengue to incubate,” explained Hayhoe, adding that climate change would extend the mosquito’s lifetime and allow the disease to develop in areas such as Chicago.

“Too much is at stake for us to fail,” Sleeman cautioned.

Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer is a Maryland-based freelance writer and a Public Policy Scholar at The Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. She is a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail:, Twitter: @Lisa_Palmer)
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