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The Public Health Connection with Climate Change

The spark that ignited the idea of STAY COOL for GRANDKIDS was the birth of David and Peg Engel’s first grandchild, Violet, in 2012. That is why our mission has always been to mend our generation’s environmental legacy and speak for those who will be most impacted by climate change threats to human health, safety, and security. Climate change, together with other natural and human-made health stressors, influences human health and disease in numerous ways. Some existing health threats will intensify, and new health threats will emerge. Not everyone is equally at risk. Important considerations include age, economic resources, and location.

But climate change isn’t only about the future; children are at particularly high risk, right now. The effects of climate change on a child’s health include:

  1. Physical and psychological stress and disruption from weather disasters (e.g. hurricanes, flooding, wildfires)
  2. Increased heat stress
  3. Decreased air quality from ozone pollution and, in some areas, air pollution associated with wildfires
  4. Altered vector-borne disease patterns
  5. Food, water, and nutrient insecurity 

Pediatricians are already seeing the effects of climate change in their patients. With shorter winters, outdoor allergy seasons are longer and warmer. This worsens allergies and increases the chances of asthma symptoms. Ozone Action Days are becoming more frequent as emergency departments receive more asthma-related admissions each year. Ozone is produced from heat interacting with the exhaust from cars and trucks, and more hot days mean more ozone. When we talk about “climate refugees”—those people who cannot sustain life any longer in their place of origin—imagine the faces of all the children whose social foundations are threatened by community and global instability, mass migrations, and increased conflict. Given this knowledge, failure to take prompt, substantive action would be an act of injustice to all children.

In an August 13, 2019 article posted by Think Progress.org, air pollution, especially one type that is worsening with global warming, can accelerate lung disease as quickly as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. The study published on August 13 in the journal JAMA by researchers at the University of Washington, Columbia University, and the University at Buffalo, doubles down on the link between air pollutants and lung disease. It also emphasizes the connection between the lung ailment emphysema and pollution from ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog (not to be confused with the stratospheric ozone layer). Chronic lower respiratory disease is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, and the third leading cause worldwide. While other air pollutants are largely decreasing nationwide, ozone is increasing — with severe public health ramifications. The 18-year study tracked more than 7,000 people of various ethnicities and races between 2000 and 2018 across six major metropolitan areas. Researchers found that if an individual’s exposure to ozone pollution increased slightly (by 3 parts per billion) that was “significantly associated” with an increased risk of emphysema over a decade — the equivalent of smoking one pack of cigarettes every day for 29 years.

Are we doing well in San Diego County? When considering ozone air pollution, the answer is surprisingly “No.”  The February 2017 Climate Change and Health Profile from the California Department of Public Health illustrates that each California county will experience the health impacts of climate change uniquely (see Table 1). San Diego County will face extreme heat and more air pollution associated with ozone and wildfires.

TABLE 1

FIGURE 1

The CDC’s Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE) framework is a five-step process that allows health officials to develop strategies and programs to help communities prepare for the health effects of climate change (Figure 1). Part of this effort involves incorporating complex atmospheric data and both short and long-range climate projections into public health planning and response activities. Combining atmospheric data and projections with epidemiologic analysis allows health officials to more effectively anticipate, prepare for, and respond to a range of climate sensitive health impacts.

Five sequential steps comprise the BRACE framework:

Step 1: Anticipate Climate Impacts and Assessing Vulnerabilities
Identify the scope of climate impacts, associated potential health outcomes, and populations and locations vulnerable to these health impacts.

Step 2: Project the Disease Burden
Estimate or quantify the additional burden of health outcomes associated with climate change.

Step 3: Assess Public Health Interventions
Identify the most suitable health interventions for the identified health impacts of greatest concern.

Step 4: Develop and Implement a Climate and Health Adaptation Plan
Develop a written adaptation plan that is regularly updated. Disseminate and oversee implementation of the plan.

Step 5: Evaluate Impact and Improve Quality of Activities
Evaluate the process. Determine the value of information attained and activities undertaken.

More in-depth information about the BRACE framework can be found in the document titled Building Resilience against Climate Effects—A Novel Framework to Facilitate Climate Readiness in Public Health Agencies. An animated video describing the BRACE framework is also available.

Intergenerational equity is the heart of STAY COOL and we work to educate and convert those who put the well-being of current generations ahead of future generations. In November 2017, Judge Ann Aiken of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that climate change may pose an unconstitutional burden on younger generations. She said, “Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.” https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/juliana-v-us

What can you do? Speak out against those policies and programs that would increase the number of vehicles on the road. Idling in traffic causes even more air pollution, and that is what happens when we expand development in areas that do not have public transit options. Write to you County Board of Supervisor and let them know that you are thinking about generations that come after us, not just those who are here now. https://www.sandiegocounty.gov/general/bos.html  If you would like help with your comments, you are welcome to contact us at info@staycool4grandkids.org.

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An Important Message from our Chair, Bob Leiter

Dear STAY COOL Supporter,

I am pleased to inform you about an exciting change in store for STAY COOL for Grandkids! On November 13, 2017 the San Diego Audubon Society (SDAS) Board of Directors voted to take over the fiscal sponsorship activities of STAY COOL as of January 1, 2018.

For more than four years STAY COOL has built a robust community in San Diego: you, our active and motivated coalition of elders. You are willing to speak out to limit the worst consequences of global warming, and we will continue to offer our support for these efforts. We are grateful for the leadership of SDAS Executive Director Chris Redfern and Board Chair David Kimball, both of whom have supported this new partnership. Our shared visions and similar missions will help STAY COOL remain focused on our goal of preserving a livable climate for future generations by engaging seniors in the San Diego region.

SDAS will create a restricted fund designated solely for STAY COOL’s projects, and all funds that reside with our current fiscal sponsor, Mission Edge, will transfer over to the new fund by the end of the year. If you wish to continue to support our outreach and education programs, donations* will be accepted through Network for Good, our secure online donation platform.

Our changes are bittersweet.  Unfortunately, the executive team has determined that we can no longer ensure the resources necessary to employ a staff member. As a consequence, we will with the new year become an all-volunteer organization.  We will lose our Administrative Director, Sarah Benson, who has done such an outstanding job for STAY COOL for the last four years. Sarah’s last day with STAY COOL will be December 15. Her dedication to our cause has been tremendous and her many talents will be sorely missed.

Our volunteer Advisory Council is growing. This month, we welcomed a new member, Linda Giannelli Pratt. Linda has built a professional career focused on community-based environmental protection, most recently as managing director of Green Cities California, a statewide nonprofit organization which serves local government leaders to advance more sustainable policies and practices. We are pleased to welcome Linda to our team! Learn more about Linda on our “Who We Are” page.

For any questions or comments about these changes, please feel free to give me a call at 619-261-6321.

Many thanks for your ongoing support for a cooler future,

Bob Leiter
STAY COOL for Grandkids Advisory Council Chairperson

* All gifts to the STAY COOL project are tax-deductible. Through December 31, 2017 the fiscal sponsor accepting donations on behalf of STAY COOL is Mission Edge, tax ID 27-2938491. If you prefer, checks can be mailed to Mission Edge at: P.O. Box 12319, San Diego, CA 92112. Please indicate your gift is to support “STAY COOL” on your check. Beginning January 1, 2018, tax-deductible donations to the STAY COOL project can be made directly to San Diego Audubon Society.

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Concerns of a Climate Scientist

What concerns me most about climate change now is the contrast between the apathy of the public and the troubling facts that we climate scientists have established. Most people are poorly informed about what our science has discovered, and most political leaders have done little or nothing to cope with the threat of climate change. In the United States, we also have the sad spectacle that almost the entire national leadership of the Republican party simply does not accept the most basic findings of mainstream climate science. In the 2012 US Presidential election, the topic of climate change was essentially ignored by both sides. Problems cannot be solved by pretending they do not exist, and future generations will not judge us kindly unless we accept the science and act quickly.

The mainstream media bear part of the blame for inadequately covering climate change. This topic should be recognized by everyone as a threat deserving high priority. The existential threat of climate change affects national security, economic prosperity, and the health and safety of people throughout the world. It should not be marginalized as a niche issue of interest only to a few people whom we label as “environmentalists.” Journalists should never make the mistake of framing the issue as a controversy – is man-made climate change real and serious or not – in which both sides deserve equal time. In addition, all of us need to realize that an effective and well-funded professional disinformation campaign has succeeded in confusing many people about the seriousness of the threat and the urgency of acting to limit climate change.

The plain fact is that what mankind decides to do in the coming years and decades will largely determine the climate that our children and grandchildren will inherit. To meet the very real threat of climate change caused by human activities, the political process must listen to the science and then must act. Humanity needs to decide collectively how much man-made climate change is acceptable. Science cannot specify what level of climate change is “dangerous.” That is a question involving risk tolerance, values, priorities and other subjective concerns. Governments will decide, by their actions or inactions.

We already have a tentative decision. Many governments have now adopted the aspirational goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the average pre-industrial temperatures of the 1800s. Given that goal, climate science can provide useful information about what actions are needed to give a reasonable chance of meeting the goal. The problem, however, is that the political process has done almost nothing to act, despite the information provided by the science, so the threat of climate change continues to become more and more serious as time goes on. Today the world has already warmed by almost half of the 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit goal, and some further warming is already unavoidable.

We are already watching human-caused climate change occur. It is not only a problem for the future. It is happening here and now. The warming is just a symptom. Climate is complex, and warming has many consequences. Melting Arctic sea ice and rising sea level are consequences. Extreme weather events today occur in a changed environment. For example, Hurricane Sandy, which killed hundreds of people and caused some 75 billion dollars in property damage in 2012, occurred in a climate with higher ocean temperatures and more water vapor in the air than only a few decades ago. The heat-trapping gases and particles that humanity has emitted into the atmosphere increase the odds of severe weather events, just as steroids taken by a baseball player can increase the odds of home runs. Today we are seeing climate change on steroids. To limit global warming to moderate or tolerable amounts, the entire world must act quickly to reduce these emissions. That we have failed miserably to do this already is a great tragedy.

Recent research findings show that previous projections have not exaggerated the threat of climate change. Indeed, in several respects, they may have underestimated it. These findings include measurements showing that the Greenland and Antarctic ice-sheets are losing mass and contributing to sea level rise. Also, Arctic sea-ice extent has decreased far more rapidly than the worst-case expectations of recent climate models.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the single most important of the heat-trapping gases that humanity emits into the atmosphere. Current global CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels are now about 40% higher than those in 1990. Because some of the CO2 that we emit will stay in the atmosphere for many centuries, it is our cumulative emissions that matter. Best current estimates, based on continued “business as usual” emissions scenarios, are that global sea level rise may exceed 1 meter (about 3 feet) by 2100, with a rise of up to 2 meters (about 6 feet) considered possible. If today’s rates of emitting heat-trapping gases continue without change, then after just 20 more years the world will probably no longer be able to limit warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius.

To have a reasonable chance of meeting this 2 degree Celsius goal, the science shows that global emissions of heat-trapping gases must peak soon and then start to decline rapidly, not in 50 or 100 years, but within the next 5 to 10 years, reaching near zero well within this century. Given the politically chosen 2 degree Celsius goal, the case for great urgency in taking meaningful actions to reduce emissions is a consequence of science, thus something based on facts and evidence. It is not an ideological or political choice.

If the world continues to procrastinate throughout the current decade, so that global emissions of heat-trapping gases continue unabated for another ten years, then we will have almost certainly lost the opportunity to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Instead, our children and grandchildren will be forced to cope with more severe climate disruption. The failure of humanity to take meaningful actions now has the effect of condemning future generations to suffer from our ignoring the problem. That would be a great tragedy, but it is the most likely result, unless we change our ways and act soon.

Richard C. J. Somerville
Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Research Professor
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
University of California, San Diego

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by | May 13, 2013 · 11:56 pm