by Anne Polanksy
Senior Climate Policy Analyst
Climate Change has now created a public health emergency, according to the medical and public health community at large in an urgent call to action. “Climate change is one of the greatest threats to health America has ever faced—it is a true public health emergency,” a letter issued this week to policymakers warns. The American Medical Association, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics are among the 75 signatory organizations. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization declared climate change to be the greatest health challenge of the 21st century. Health professionals are deeply concerned that scores of people are getting sick and dying – from heat stroke, cardiovascular disease, asthma, respiratory allergies, malaria, encephalitis, dysentery, dehydration, malnutrition, and other life-threatening maladies – as the result of human-caused global warming and associated climate change impacts. “Extreme heat, powerful storms and floods, year-round wildfires, droughts, and other climate-related events have already caused thousands of deaths and displaced tens of thousands of people in the U.S. from their homes, with significant personal loss and mental health impacts especially for first responders and children,” the letter warns. In plain language, climate change makes us sick. It also kills.
This week alone, heat stroke has taken dozens of lives in the US and Europe as heat waves are breaking temperature records and inflicting extreme heat on vulnerable populations such as young children and the elderly. But instead of rising to meet the challenge, the Trump White House is sinking to new lows by crippling and killing the very government programs equipped to help. The climate program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been shut down and its director, Dr. George Luber, barred from working on anything related to climate and banned from his workplace, the CDC campus in Atlanta. Nearly terminated altogether, Dr. Luber still collects a federal paycheck but has been relegated to working from his home on tasks unrelated to his expertise in epidemiology. Now a federal whistleblower represented by counsel and afforded a host of legal protections, Dr. Luber is fighting to rescue the climate program he started and led for the last ten years and fighting to keep his job.
Death by Heat Stroke
The warning signs of heat stroke are unpleasant: your head pounds, your muscles cramp, and your heart races. When dizziness, nausea and vomiting set in, it’s often too late: certain death follows unless rapid cooling brings down the body’s core temperature to a safe level.
Extreme temperatures are taking lives in real time. On Sunday June 23rd, a 29-year-old man serving time in a prison just outside Abilene, Texas died of hyperthermia and heat stroke after running outdoors with rescue dogs in a training exercise. He simply collapsed after his body temperature had reached 106 degrees Fahrenheit. As summers get hotter and hotter, high school football players are increasingly at risk of succumbing to heat stroke and dying during summer practice – about three players a year, on average. On June 18, 15-year-old Terrence Allen died on the practice field at his school in Amite, Louisiana: humidity and 90-degree temperatures made the air feel like 102 degrees, well into the danger zone.
On June 26, Germany recorded its highest-ever June temperature, 102 degrees F, as did Poland with temperatures reaching 101, according to CNN. The 2003 European heat wave took about 70,000 lives; it is not known how many will suffer and die from the current heat wave.
An all-crimson temperature map of an area in France depicting the forecast for June 27 looks eerily like the image of a screaming skull akin to Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream.” The likeness inspired French meteorologist Rubin Hallali to tweet an apt side-by-side.
Extreme temperatures leading to greater morbidity and mortality is no surprise to the climate scientists who have been warning of such climate change impacts for years. According to the most recent National Assessment of climate change impacts issued by the US Global Change Research Program, “A warmer future is projected to lead to increases in future mortality on the order of thousands to tens of thousands of additional premature deaths per year across the United States by the end of this century.” According to another USGCRP study issued in 2016, The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment, heat waves are estimated to cause 670 to 1,300 direct deaths each year in the U.S., and premature deaths from heat waves are expected to rise more than 27,000 per year by 2100.
Other Ways Climate Change Kills
Prolonged drought and extreme heat also bring about death and destruction from fiercer and more frequent wildfires. Last year’s western wildfires were brutal. California fires took a half-dozen lives and were so severe as to cause a national state of emergency; the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire was the largest in California history. That’s the hell part of “hell and high water” – heavier-than-normal precipitation in many regions leads to dangerous and deadly flooding. We’re seeing steady upticks in the numbers of drowning incidents following flash flooding. Elevated waterborne disease outbreaks are often reported in the weeks following heavy rainfall. We’re also seeing increased mortality from a host of vector-borne and infectious diseases (e.g., Lyme, West Nile virus, and the plague), and painful deaths from severe dehydration and water-borne diarrheal diseases. Poor air quality aggravates asthma and causes other respiratory diseases and heart failure. And on top of all that, anxiety, depression, and other serious mental health problems attributed to climate-related hardships are ruining peoples’ lives and leading to more suicides (See the USGCRP study referenced above, the 4th and most recent National Climate Assessment, here and here) . Thousands and thousands of people are losing their lives to the climate crisis.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
A recent post on CDC’s Facebook page lets us know that June 24-28 is National Mosquito Control Awareness Week and directs us to the CDC page about how to control mosquitos at home. Few are aware that the deadliest animal on Earth is the mosquito, which transmits malaria, dengue, West Nile virus, yellow fever, encephalitis, and a variety of other diseases. However, nothing on the CDC Facebook or website pages talks about how climate change influences our vulnerability to these diseases and exposure to mosquitoes. For example, mosquitoes mature more quickly and bite more often in warmer weather and tend to survive milder winters. In fact, mention of climate change is conspicuously absent on many CDC website pages. Yet, the CDC itself has its roots in malaria control; established in 1946 as a branch of the US Public Health Service, the CDC was the successor to World War II national defense malaria control programs. In fact, Atlanta was chosen to be the location for CDC headquarters because malaria was endemic in the Southeastern region of the US, and most of its original employees were entomologists.
CDC’s Climate Program
Though many federal agencies and departments had built vibrant climate change programs as early as the 1980s, it was not until March 2009 – just a few months into the Obama administration – that the CDC adopted a formal climate program. Dr. George Luber, an epidemiologist with a strong interest in how climate change compromises human health, is largely credited for founding the program, which had built up to a staff of about 18-20 federal employees. Some have now departed the agency altogether and others have been dispatched to other focus areas but remain eager to resume their work on climate change and public health.
According to Kevin Bell, a whistleblower attorney on staff at the nonprofit organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) who serves as legal counsel to Dr. Luber, the now-defunct CDC climate program is currently housed under a branch that focuses on asthma, under a director that apparently has no interest in pursuing climate-related work. Moreover, the program is at risk of being zeroed out by the Trump White House, which has made a practice of hiring known climate science deniers to set national policy. The hope is that some sort of congressional action will result in moving the climate program to a friendlier home, possibly to another of CDC’s centers. Yet, the likelihood of success of such a move is questionable, and many are looking to the 2020 presidential election to provide a more positive and lasting solution. Both the CDC climate change program and Dr. Luber’s professional career remain in limbo.
What is Congress Doing About It?
So far, not much. Certainly not enough.
Those who champion greater accountability and transparency in government have been hopeful that the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives achieved in the 2018 mid-term elections will result in stronger oversight of the executive branch. On April 30, 2019 the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Environment held a hearing on the public health effects of climate change. The hearing witness roster included several highly qualified academics and physicians with relevant experience – and one climate denialist – but, oddly, did not include a witness for the CDC, or any witness from the executive branch for that matter.
The job of the House Oversight Committee is to provide actual oversight of executive branch departments and agencies under its jurisdiction. Former Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) was a known firebrand with a reputation for tough investigative prowess and waging heavy war against government wrongdoing. Current Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) is no wallflower and is exercising strong oversight over a whole range of executive branch activity under scrutiny. Hopefully, that Committee’s Environment Subcommittee chair Harley Rouda (D-CA) will be able to rally his colleagues to compel cooperation from a rogue Trump administration that has decided to defy any efforts by Congress to oversee federal agencies.
It is unclear whether CDC Director Robert Redfield was invited to testify but declined, or whether he was not invited to do so by subcommittee staff. Through Dr. Luber’s attorney Kevin Bell, we have learned that subcommittee staff did reach out to Dr. Luber, presumably interested in inviting him to testify. However, there were no direct conversations between Luber and Congressional staff, and the deal was never sealed. Regardless, it is doubtful the agency would have allowed him to provide testimony and appear as a witness.
And so, the voice of the CDC was not heard on the matter of how the federal government is either addressing or failing to address the public health emergency climate change has brought upon us. The question must therefore be asked: what kind of oversight hearing was it if there was no actual oversight over the most relevant federal branch of government? Moreover, why was this allowed to occur? One cannot imagine former Rep. Waxman allowing an oversight hearing to go forward absent any agency witnesses. So why did Chairman Rouda tolerate this?
The hearing was not a waste of time, however. The testimony provided by the private sector witnesses (with the exception of the climate science denier) was informative and compelling. The most explosive testimony came from Dr. Aaron Bernstein, who co-directs Harvard University’s Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health. His written testimony is compelling alone, but his oral testimony made an even more profound impact. He opened his remarks with the following lament:
“I am a practicing pediatrician at Boston Children’s [Hospital] and my primary responsibility is the care of children. As a doctor, I have cared for children with asthma whose lungs have been so damaged by contaminated air that they were scarcely able to breathe. I have sat with parents whose children have Lyme disease as they worry about whether their child’s half-paralyzed face will ever get better. I have cared for children who no longer had a will to live, having survived floods that at once washed away their homes and their peace of mind. And I have held in my own arms infants whose brains were deformed by the Zika virus whose prospects of living a healthy life vanished before they were even born. What ties all these experiences together, I am sorry to say, to those communities in this country who depend upon fossil fuels, that it is our reliance on fossil fuels, which when extracted from the Earth and burned damage our children’s health through climate change and through the air and water pollution they produce.”
Indeed, it is the children who are most vulnerable to the ravages of climate change, and who will bear the brunt of all that will fall upon us.
Meanwhile, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Government Accountability Project are united in our resistance to climate deniers and support of climate whistleblowers. These truth-tellers are the courageous messengers whose revelations simply must rise above the din of Washington gridlock. They need allies now more than ever. It is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that they will be able to sound the alarm without becoming the sound of their own professional suicide.
CSPW Senior Climate Policy Analyst Anne Polansky has 30 years of experience in public policies relating to energy and the environment, with a strong focus on climate change and renewable energy. She is a former Professional Staff Member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.