Climate Change Will Make Us Sicker And Make Our Food Less Nutritious

A new report describes the public health risks of climate change in sobering detail.
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WASHINGTON -- Climate change will likely have dramatic effects on the physical and mental health of the U.S. population, worsening everything from the quality of our food to the severity of fires and floods in populated areas, according to a report from federal agencies released Monday.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program's assessment identifies a number of ways by which global climate change is expected to pose a direct health risk to people in the U.S. and around the world. Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the report is meant to highlight that climate is "not just about glaciers and polar bears -- it's about the health of families and our kids."

"Climate change endangers our health by affecting our food and water sources, the air we breathe and the weather we experience," McCarthy told reporters Monday. "It will exacerbate certain health effects that already exist, and create new ones."

The EPA, the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration produced the report, along with experts from five other federal agencies.

While much of the information in the document has been previously reported, taken together it offers a picture of how climate change is expected to affect nearly every aspect of daily life in the near future -- in the vast majority of cases, for the worse.

The report notes, for example, that climate change is likely to compromise the food we eat, with higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere bringing down the nutritional value of crops like wheat and rice. Meanwhile, temperature and weather changes could increase the risk of foodborne illnesses like salmonella and norovirus.

The report also projects that by 2030, extreme heat during the summer months could cause the yearly number of premature deaths in the U.S. to climb 11,000 higher than the number measured in 1990. By 2100, the report says, that number could rise as many as 27,000 premature deaths higher than the 1990 figure.

Allergies and asthma already affect many Americans, but warmer temperatures, longer pollen seasons and air pollution can make those issues much worse. The research also found that ragweed pollen season has already grown longer in the U.S., increasing by up to 27 days between 1995 and 2011.

Climate change is also causing vector-carrying mosquitos and ticks to expand their range in North America, and widening the yearly window for the transmission of certain diseases.

McCarthy, along with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and John Holdren, who directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, discussed the findings with reporters Monday morning, stressing that it underlines the need for action on climate change. They pointed to the Obama administration's actions under its Climate Action Plan, which includes new regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, and to the signing of the international climate agreement reached in Paris last December.

Murthy also stressed the potential mental health effects of climate change stemming from traumatic events like flood, fires and extreme weather conditions, all of which can cause property loss, dislocation and stress.

"If we want to safeguard the health of current and future generations, we have to address climate change," he said.

Holdren said that while the risks described in the report are grave, there are steps we can take to mitigate them.

"We can't avoid all of them, because climate change is already underway, and no matter what we do it cannot be stopped overnight," he said. "But there is a huge difference between the magnitude if we fail to act... and if we take the actions set out in the Climate Action Plan and the Paris climate agreement."

Climate change, he said, "is a pervasive problem with many dimensions of impacts, which together I think make it the most serious threat we face."

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