June 27th, 2013
With the Earth running a fever, people in the United States and around the world are vulnerable to climate-driven disease, famine, war and migration. Many scientists warn that a temperature rise of two degrees Celsius – which is now highly likely – would result in catastrophe, and four degrees would be incompatible with organized society as we know it. Transitioning to a clean energy economy will reduce these risks resulting from fossil fuel combustion, according to many researchers. This sobering conversation with a doctor and a lawyer takes a realistic look at building healthier and more resilient communities in California and beyond.
“The reason we care about climate change – at least most of us – isn’t because of the physical changes in the world, it’s because it’s going to affect us.”
Professor Guzman and Dr. Jackson started the conversation in Lafayette by painting a picture of climate change today and describing how higher temperatures will impact future generations.
“Climate change will be the biggest health issue of my grandchild’s lifetime and my great-grandchildren’s lifetime…we will be looking at somewhere in the range of half a billion lives being affected profoundly by the impacts of climate change,” Jackson said.
Some risks are obvious: In 2004, 70,000 people died in Europe from a huge heat wave. Others are indirect, like social disruptions that resulting from a lack of resources: In Darfur, drought led to a climate war. The places most at risk for climate war are those where conflicts already exist, like Israel and its neighbors, or India and Pakistan, Guzman said.
“It’s like putting a vice on an existing crisis – there’s no guarantee it’ll flame up, but it makes it more likely,” he said.
The speakers referenced the global impacts of the Spanish flu and smallpox, examples of disease spread that will become more volatile in a warmer climate. Malaria and West Nile virus will be greater concerns because mosquitoes are spreading to larger areas.
Public health concerns also include basic necessities that will be challenged by water shortages in California and spikes in food prices. Guzman spoke about his previous employment with the Center for Disease Control, where climate change was deemed taboo more than a decade ago.
“One of my colleagues actually got fired for asserting that climate change was a public health issue,” Guzman said. “The reality is, science is best when people can argue about it.”
Like many other researchers, he believes the best thing we can do to help the situation is reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“No one entity, not even China, frankly, by itself, can fix this, but it can’t happen without the United States,” Guzman said.
In addition to a large number of people that live on coasts, about half of the world’s population resides in river basins formed by mountain glaciers, and changes in those systems will impact our quality of life, Guzman said.
“We have built up our entire global civilization on the premise that the rivers will flow where they've been flowing for the last 250,000 years, and that won't be true anymore.”
Jackson spoke about the trauma of experiencing natural disasters, which are enhanced by increasing global temperatures, and said that psychological impacts are just as important as physical impacts.
“People that have been through hurricanes and floods will tell you 60 years later of the trauma of seeing all the family pictures and the contents of their house being lost,” Jackson said.
Disaster preparedness is especially important for coastal communities, but some areas are not facing the reality of climate change, he said.
“The state of North Carolina now makes it illegal to consider in a real estate decision the fact that climate change is happening, and it's totally ridiculous,” Jackson said. “You’re told if you're in an earthquake zone. You ought to be told if you're in a sea level rise zone.”
While Jackson was concerned with bracing for impact, Guzman argued that we should invest in reducing emissions instead of building sea walls.
“Climate change is not a body blow that we have to absorb – it's turning the whole system upside down,” Guzman said. “So we can't retreat 100 miles from the coast or 100 yards from the coast and then be done.”
“The only solution is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
- Danielle Torrent
Commonwealth Club of California
June 27, 2013
Commonwealth Club of California
June 27, 2013
Andrew Guzman, Professor, UC Berkeley Law School; Author, Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change
Richard Joseph Jackson, Professor, UCLA School of Public Health; Host of the four-part public TV program, Designing Healthy Communities