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Divvy bikes

Elizabeth McCarthy/MEDILL

Chicago's Divvy bike sharing program provides a way to fight climate change, get healthy and have fun biking.


Climate change poses a public health crisis - and opportunity

by Elizabeth McCarthy
Oct 17, 2013

Patz presenting

Courtesy of the Environmental Law and Policy Center

Dr. Jonathan Patz from the University of Wisconsin explained how climate change can threathen public health.  He also delivered good news - fighting climate change can save money and lives. He spoke at a recent panel at the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Hunger, heat stroke and violence are just a few of the health hazards that rise with the temperatures of global warming.

“This is, I think, the largest health crisis we’ve ever faced, but I also think it could be the greatest opportunity of the last century if we actually address climate change,” said Dr. Jonathan Patz, public health expert at the University of Wisconsin.

Swapping cars for bikes, for example, could help pedal away climate change, save a cyclist hundreds of dollars in fuel and provide a way to stay active and healthy.

Patz spoke on a recent panel at the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center about the dangers of air pollution, heat, and extreme weather due to climate change. But he also hit a high note with the public health benefits of addressing climate change. The panelists discussed both global and local perspectives at the event, moderated by Karen Weigert, chief sustainability officer for the Office of the Mayor.

Globally, climate change could create a greater risk of hunger due to drought and failing crops, lung ailments from air pollution, and diseases carried by rodents, insects and dirty water.

Chicago is fighting the problem of dirty stormwater runoff, as heavy rains become part of the extreme weather patterns associated with climate change in the Midwest. A recently announced $50 million investment to improve stormwater management includes measures as simple as planting more trees in the city, which absorb excess runoff.

“We’re trying to find more and more ways to help our natural environment help us, as we deal with the changes in weather to come,” Weigert said.

But public health problems triggered by heat and violence worry Patz the most, he said.

Research from the University of California at Berkeley published in Science this fall found that an increase in temperature and precipitation corresponds with a rise in interpersonal violence and intergroup conflict.

Climate change and mental health is an even more complex problem when you factor in climate refugees – people fleeing areas as they become increasingly unlivable due to sea level rise or drought, for example. The societal instability and social challenges associated with dealing with a large number of displaced people could lead to desperation and violence.

“To be honest, I think this issue could be the iceberg under the tip of the iceberg,” Patz said. “It could be enormous.”

The other potentially massive public health threat is heat. More people die in heat waves than all other natural disasters combined, Patz said. A 2003 heat wave in Europe killed an estimated 45,000 people, for example. These extremes will increase in probability with climate change, he said.

Combatting climate change and public health hazards will require both adaptation and mitigation, said Dr. Samuel Dorevitch, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health who also spoke on the panel. He is working on a project with the Illinois Department of Public Health to analyze how climate change will threaten public health in Illinois, and what can be done.

Dorevitch’s research has shown that nighttime temperatures are a strong predictor of health problems. For example, three days of 90-degree temperatures, where the nighttime temperature didn’t get below 80 degrees, could be more dangerous than one 95-degree day, particularly for high-risk populations such as the elderly and those with chronic heart disease.

According to Dorevitch, Illinois’ nighttime temperatures have been increasing in recent years. And cities contribute to the warming, with massive stretches of concrete roads, sidewalks and parking lots that soak up heat and radiate it at night.

“So this is bad news,” he said. “This is sort of the ‘Kentuck-ification’ of Illinois.” He was referring to a warming climate that tends to make northern regions feel more like areas to the south.  

This is where mitigation comes in. And efforts to reduce fossil fuel consumption can offer major health benefits according to Dorevitch and Patz.

Biking or taking public transportation reduces carbon dioxide pollution, reduces the air pollution that can trigger lung diseases such as asthma, and promotes heart health through physical activity.

Patz’s research shows that if all round trips of 5 miles or less were accomplished without using a gasoline-powered vehicle, and half of those involved biking in the summer, it would save the U.S. about $8 billion in mortality and health care costs and approximately 1,200 lives every year.

According to Patz, the cost of removing a ton of carbon dioxide from the air is about $30. But for each ton removed there is a $49 savings in avoided health costs.

“We’ve got to factor in the health co-benefits of reducing fossil fuel consumption and get that in the equation,” he said.

Once complete, Dorevitch’s project with the public health department will result in a climate and health adaptation plan for Illinois that takes into account these co-benefits.

“We will adapt to climate change,” he said. “It’s just a matter of whether we adapt in advance and have a functional system, or whether we’re throw into a situation and we’re forced to adapt and it’s chaotic and expensive and the health outcomes are bad.”