President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Accord climate change agreement was derided by economists who worried that the U.S. exit would hurt the clean-energy sector, and environmentalists who said abandoning the agreement would be a devastating setback to global efforts to combat climate change.
The withdrawal also drew ire from another group: doctors and public health experts.
“I am stunned at this irresponsible action,” Dr. Howard Frumkin, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at University of Washington School of Public Health, told HuffPost. “Climate change is perhaps the greatest public health threat of our time.”
“As a pediatrician, I am gravely concerned that this administration’s has a blatant disregard for the health of its citizens,” said Dr. Aaron Bernstein, associate director of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health Center for Health and the Global Environment. “All Americans, and especially our children, face substantially less healthy and secure futures as a result.”
Dr. Barry Levy, adjunct professor of public health at Tufts University School of Medicine and the co-author of a book on climate change and public health, echoed those sentiments.
“It is likely that Americans will not only suffer health consequences from the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris accord, but will also suffer indirectly ―socioeconomically and politically ― from the health consequences of climate change elsewhere in the world,” he said.
The connection between climate change and health is well-established in public health circles, with then-Surgeon General Vivek Murthy highlighting the link during a White House summit on the issue in 2015.
“Climate change poses a serious, immediate and global threat to health,” Murthy said at the time.
While it remains to be seen whether pulling out of the Paris Accord will mean that the U.S. ― which produces one-fifth of global emissions ― is going to reverse its efforts to cut emissions, the move shows a disregard for the connection between climate change and American citizens’ health and well-being, the experts say.
Under the Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last year produced a report on the risks climate change poses to health in the United States and around the world, from increasing air pollution deaths to the mental health consequences of climate-related migration.
Here are a few of the report’s most concerning findings:
Extreme temperatures trigger heat- and cold-related deaths
As greenhouse gas concentrations rise, so do extreme ― and average ― temperatures.
Extremely hot weather can result the rise of heat-related health risks, such as dehydration and heat stroke, while abnormally cold temperatures drive up the risk of hypothermia and frostbite.
Extreme temperatures also can worsen chronic problems such as heart disease, respiratory illness and diabetes, according to the report. Over time, continuous exposure to high temperatures is linked to more hospital admissions for cardiovascular, kidney and respiratory disorders.
Air pollution is a leading cause of death
Air pollution is linked to numerous health problems, including heart disease, stroke, cancer and respiratory illness. Air pollution is also a leading cause of fatalities worldwide, causing 7 million deaths in 2012, according to the World Health Organization.
Because air pollution can travel long distances, it’s a worldwide problem. Air pollution produced in China hurts a U.S. citizen’s health and vice versa, meaning it’s a problem most effectively addressed through a collaborative international agreement, such as the Paris Accord, rather than piecemeal deals between individual countries.
As temperatures climb, so does disease risk
Changes in temperature, rainfall and humidity make the world a more hospitable place for mosquitos, which thrive in hot, wet climates and are notorious carriers of infectious diseases, including the Zika virus.
In the U.S., one big concern is that rising temperatures could mean that the virus, which spread through locally transmitted cases last year in Florida and Texas, could become an endemic issue.
“Climate change is certainly expanding the geographic range of mosquito species, and inevitably the diseases follow them,” Nikos Vasilakis, an associate professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch told New York Times Magazine.
“But it also shortens what we call the extrinsic incubation period, the time it takes from when a mosquito takes a blood meal to when it becomes infectious. The standard is 14 days, but in warmer periods we can see it as short as nine or 10 days.”
Warmer temperatures also may lengthen pollen season ― making life harder for people with allergies. The Obama administration report found that the United States’ ragweed pollen season grew by 27 days between 1995 and 2011.
Mental health consequences of climate-related strife
Extreme weather can increase the likelihood and severity of wildfires, floods and water shortages, resulting in property damage and community issues and even human displacement.
“Indirect health consequences can occur when climate change results in shortages of food and safe water, leading to malnutrition and waterborne disease, mass migration, socioeconomic and political instability, and possibly armed conflict,” Levy said.
According to the report, the mental health consequences of climate change and extreme weather can range from stress to clinical disorders like anxiety, post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression and a greater likelihood of suicides.