Last year was the warmest on record. So far, 2015 is even hotter. Dozens of U.S. cities shattered heat and rainfall records in June. Parts of Europe have suffered record-breaking summer heat, and scientists estimate climate change has made European heat waves much more common. Heat waves have killed more than 2,500 people this summer in India and more than 1,200 in Pakistan. The world is getting hotter, and people are dying because of it.
Climate change also is bringing increased frequency and severity of heavy precipitation and flash flooding. In May, flooding from extreme rain killed 24 people in Texas and seven in Oklahoma; this month, four people died in Kentucky and three in Ohio.
Deaths from heat waves and flooding are classified as “direct” health impacts of climate change. Many deadly and debilitating “indirect” health problems also are linked to climate change, including respiratory diseases such as COPD caused by worsening air pollution. The American Lung Association reports the adult prevalence of COPD in Maine is the highest in New England and higher than the national average. COPD is the third leading cause of death in the U.S.
Airborne allergens are also on the rise, which leads to an increased burden of allergies and allergy-induced asthma. In addition, insect-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease, are strongly climate sensitive. Lyme disease is on the rise, and Maine is among the top three states for Lyme disease incidence rate.
The World Health Organization predicts climate change will cause at least 250,000 excess global deaths per year by 2030 from malnutrition, diarrheal diseases, malaria and heat stress. Thousands more deaths are caused by floods and wildfires and by displacement of people because of climate-related crop failures, extreme storms, flooding and drought.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), comprising thousands of scientists from around the world, authored a recent report titled “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability,” which details the public health impacts of climate change. The IPCC concludes with “very high confidence” that “the health of human populations is sensitive to shifts in weather patterns and other aspects of climate change.” The Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change calls climate change “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century” and in its 2015 report declares that all future climate change scenarios “expose the global population to worsening health consequences.”
Carbon dioxide emissions into the air from power plants and other sources contribute enormously to the observed warming of our planet and other associated changes, such as sea level rise and ocean acidification, major problems affecting Maine and the entire world. The White House cites power plants as the source of about one-third of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, so the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed the Clean Power Plan to reduce power plant emissions, while offering states the flexibility to develop their own rules for compliance.
The Clean Power Plan is an essential public health intervention that will save thousands of lives and billions of dollars each year. The EPA will finalize the plan next month, yet Republicans in the House and Senate have introduced legislation to delay the plan. We urgently need to deal with current and future health impacts of climate change, and Congress should support the Clean Power Plan as our best available tool, one that has the weight of science behind it, instead of engage in political maneuvering.
Maine Sen. Angus King and Rep. Chellie Pingree have publicly expressed their support for the Clean Power Plan, but Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Bruce Poliquin have not. Poliquin has stated publicly he is skeptical human activities contribute to climate change — a viewpoint that has no scientific basis — and he voted to delay the plan’s implementation. Collins has supported environmental protections in her long tenure in Congress and twice has opposed Republican efforts in the Senate to block the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases but has yet to publicly endorse the Clean Power Plan.
Collins and Poliquin ought to support this common-sense approach to mitigating climate change for the sake of protecting Maine’s future climate stability and the health of its people.
Gail Carlson teaches in the Environmental Studies program at Colby College in Waterville.