Professor, University of California, Berkeley
Director, Center for Climate Change and Health, Public Health Institute
Director of Health Professional Outreach and Education, Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, UCSF
Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, UCSF
Global warming is hitting closer to home than we think, from a neighborhood child gasping with asthma to a parent collapsing from heatstroke. These realities led U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy to assert in April that climate change presents the most complex threat to public health in U.S. history.
For Robert Gould, that realization came to him in the 1990s. As a member of the organization Physicians for Social Responsibility, he saw the group broaden its focus from the nuclear threat to include the looming impact of climate disruption. He remembers that the leadership “raised the question that we really needed to extend our work to the major environmental health issues facing us and in particular global warming.”
The effects can be direct, for instance the injuries sustained during a strong flood, or they can be indirect, such as the decline in crop production. But Public Health Institute’s Linda Rudolph sees another emotional layer when it comes to the human populace. “It's an existential threat because climate change threatens our air, our water, our food, our shelter and our security.”
The populations of society that are especially vulnerable to these coming changes are people working on farms, construction sites or other locations where employees are subjected to the whims of weather, which can lead them to make more trips to the ER for afflictions like heatstroke. In addition to that, professor Rachel Morello maintains that it’s important to “keep in mind is sort of the economic dislocation that happens because of climate change.” As seasonal work, be it tourism or agriculture, becomes scarce, it’s low-income people of color who bear the economic brunt.
Plenty of people have been displaced by major weather events such as Hurricane Katrina and the recent California wildfires. Psychologist Katrina Peters has seen those people develop an isolating sense of despair. “If there were a larger number of people who understood that many of the things that are happening are not just arbitrary, that these are things that are connected to the great climate changes that we see. As we understand that, we are better able to come up with solutions both individually and in our communities.”
As part of a nationwide trend, California is proactively encouraging its citizens to reduce climate change emissions. Cities across the state are investing in public transportation systems and renovating infrastructure in order to become more walkable. Rudolph believes this is an important step towards fighting complicity when it comes to our current way of life. “We know that [encouraging biking and walking is] one of the most effective ways to improve our health, reduce all sorts of chronic diseases and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
It has been a challenge throughout the last few decades to engage physicians in a discussion around these issues. That work is getting easier thanks to initiatives being adopted by the American Medical Association. “[There are] three recent surveys of physicians across the United States,” says Rudolph. “All three of those surveys showed that over 60 percent of physicians say that they are seeing the impacts of climate change in their patients now.”
The possibility of a large coal exporting terminal is currently being discussed by the Oakland port. Activists are firmly against the project. “The local communities that live near the ports,” says Morello, “are extremely concerned about the local pollution impacts of such an operation of moving coal around.” Community members are increasingly connecting the dots between local, big-scale infrastructure and the adverse respiratory health conditions that follow in the wake of heavy pollution.
California’s Central Valley is one region of the state where a vulnerable population is dealing with repercussions from air pollution and water scarcity. The extended statewide drought has caused vital backyard wells to dry up. As warm days and nights become more common, a toxic form of ozone builds in the air above the valley. As Morello explains, it’s easy to see why the Central Valley has the “highest asthma rates and all kinds of chronic health conditions that are definitely associated with air pollution that is accelerated by climate change.”
Written by: Ellen Cohan
Photography by: Rikki Ward