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Report: Climate Change Creates Public Health Costs


Chapter nine of the new report is devoted to the serious impact of climate change on human health. Everything from sickness and death from extreme heat to asthma triggered by air pollution or higher pollen counts, to the rise in diseases borne by insects. For more on how our changing climate affects public health, we've called on Brian Stone. He's director of the Urban Climate Lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Brian, welcome to the program.

BRIAN STONE: Thanks for having me, Melissa.

BLOCK: And usually when we think about climate change, we might be thinking about drought or flooding, maybe not so much thinking about illnesses and the disease that can result from that. How big a public health risk are we talking about here?

STONE: It's a large threat. We know today and historically that heat and heat waves account for many more deaths every year in the United States than do tornadoes and hurricanes, flooding events. Actually, all of those events combined don't result in as many deaths each year than just heat waves do.

BLOCK: And are we seeing a rise in those deaths as the climate warms?

STONE: We are seeing an increase in terms of significant events. And so, the most well-publicized event happened in 2003 in Europe in which, in developed countries across Europe, a heat wave that lasted about eight weeks resulted in - the best guess is - more than 70,000 people died. And that's the deadliest weather-related event to ever strike a developed part of the world. So, it's a very significant threat.

BLOCK: I was interested to read in the section about air pollution about the shifts in growing seasons and pollen and how that's affecting people with respiratory illnesses, with asthma and allergies.

STONE: Yeah. I mean, this is - I think, many of the most predictable impacts on health are things that seem very common to us. I mean, asthma is, obviously, a very well-recognized problem, as is heat exposure. But as this becomes more widespread, with longer summers and hotter summers, I think these very familiar problems are going to become a significant health threat for many people who don't experience these symptoms today.

BLOCK: And I mentioned the rise in diseases borne by insects. How does climate change affect that?

STONE: It just creates a more favorable environment for these hosts. One example is whether mosquitos, whether their range will move northward, and there's evidence that that's happening. There has been work in my city, in Atlanta, that shows that West Nile Virus is becoming more prevalent, or at least the birds that carry the virus. And so it just makes a more hospitable environment for many of these pathogens to migrate northward.

BLOCK: When you look at the work that's being done on the state or local level to prepare the public, to protect the public from some of these health risks that we've been talking about, what's working? What do you think you can point to and say this is a good solution to what I'm seeing?

STONE: Well, in the realm of heat management, there are a number of cities that are investing in strategies to adapt to rising temperatures. We had a very significant heat wave in Chicago that your listeners may remember - depending on how old they are - back in 1995, where about 700 individuals died over the course of just a few days. And since that time, Chicago has invested in programs that not only help the city respond better to an emergency like a heat wave but to actually lower temperatures in the city. And so one program is called the Green Alleys Program. And Chicago has lots of alleyways, it's a large city. And the extent of pavement in the city can actually make the city hotter. It's a phenomenon known as the heat island effect. And so, Chicago's been trying to cool down the city by using more reflective materials in their alleyways, lighter materials that reflect more sunlight away, and also materials that can allow rainwater to infiltrate. And so having the moisture, more moisture retained in the city can also cool it down. And so that's an example of one city that's responded to a historical health threat that is likely to increase in the future in a positive way.

BLOCK: There is this sort of ominous message from the climate change report, which says as threats increase, our ability to adapt to future changes may be limited in the sphere of public health.

STONE: This is a truism with climate change in general. And we've known this for a long time, that the earlier you start to respond, the more success you're going to have and the less costly it will be both in terms of the outlays that cities must make in the country but also in terms of health. And so we can make the most progress today in terms of offsetting future warming. The farther we get down this road, the harder it will be to control the problems.

BLOCK: Brian Stone, thanks so much for talking with us.

STONE: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: Brian Stone is director of the Urban Climate Lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and he's author of the book "The City and the Coming Climate: Climate Change and the Places We Live." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.