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Courtesy of Richard Alley

Harvard physician warns of climate change health hazards

by Lisa Barbella
March 09, 2012


Lisa Barbella/MEDILL

"Get rich and save the world, or else: Energy, environmental change and options" was geoscientist  Richard Alley's call for action on climate change.

Lisa Barbella/MEDILL

Dr. Aaron Bernstein of Harvard University spoke about how climate change can damage your health, the focus of his talk at Northwestern University's Climate Change Symposium.

Rising temperatures and more heat waves due to climate change can cause heat stroke, heart attacks, dehydration and even increased incidences of violent crime and suicide, said Dr. Aaron Bernstein, associate director of Harvard University's Center for Health and the Global Environment.

Bernstein kicked off a day of provocative presentations at Northwestern University's third annual Climate Change Symposium, held Thursday. He showed how seemingly small changes in average temperatures translate into much longer cycles of very hot days and record hot days.

Rising sea levels and more extreme weather events can displace large numbers of people living in coastal cities or island nations, he said. "Weather refugees" have higher incidences of infectious diseases, he noted.

Bernstein compared the lackluster political and social response regarding the climate change crisis to a scenario from emergency medicine.

“The situation is akin to showing up to the emergency room with some pain in your belly and it hurts on your right side and you feel nauseous. And the emergency room doctor says, ‘Boy that’s probably some indigestion. We are going to send you home.’ And you are thinking, ‘Could this be appendicitis?’”

Ocean levels are rising due to greenhouse gas emissions at a faster rate than we thought, said Richard Alley, a leading climate scientist, a Pennsylvania State University geologist and the keynote speaker for the public symposium.

“If we could power light bulbs with this man’s energy we could probably solve the energy problem tomorrow,” said symposium moderator and Northwestern geologist Yarrow Axford, as she introduced Alley.

Alley’s animated speaking style and colorful examples kept the audience of nearly 300 students, teachers and community members engaged in a discussion on how human activities, such as massive burning of fossil fuels, contributes to a warmer earth and thus higher sea levels.

If we could see the pound per mile of carbon dioxide emitted from our vehicles and spread it out over all the roads in the U.S. over a year it would be about an inch thick, said Alley.

“In a decade there would be no joggers in America,” he said. “We would all be cross-country skiers.”

People are burning fossil fuels a million times faster than nature can store it and sending about $1,000 per person per year to other countries to keep up with our demand for oil, he said.

“We’ve been trying to 'drill, baby, drill' for a long time and the price hasn’t plummeted so that other people in the world can have what we have,” he said. “Now we got to do something else. The question is do we burn before we learn or should we be burning while we are learning?”

Alley also disputed recent claims that global warming has stopped because the earth hasn’t warmed in the last 10 to 15 years. He showed a graph illustrating several short periods of earth cooling off throughout his life.

“I got married in 1980 and it was getting cooler,” he said pointing to a short period of average dropping temperatures. “In 1988 I moved to Penn State at the beginning of a cooling trend. In 2002 they actually named a glacier after me in Antarctica and you can see very clearly that it was a huge cooling trend.” He showed other snippets of graphs with declining temperatures to make his point.

"My entire life, it's getting cooler, right?" he said. He then revealed a graph illustrating that these periods of cooling were small seesaws in a much larger, more dramatic trend of overall warming across several decades. As people laughed, he noted, "There are people making policy doing that" with snippets of graphs.

However, positive action is being taken on the local level. Catherine Hurley, Evanston’s sustainable programs coordinator, spoke about what Evanston is doing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The city has started or implemented about half of the 220 initiatives in their climate action plan including retrofitting city buildings with more energy efficient lighting and air-conditioning and creating on-sight renewable solar energy at the water treatment plant. 

Electricity use at city-operated facilities is down 32 percent natural gas is down seven percent since 2005.

The city is also reaching out to residents to decrease their energy use through education programs, bike route enhancements, public transit advocacy and recycling container upgrades.

The Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern, the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and the Program in Environmental Policy and Culture sponsored the symposium that Axford helped organize.