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May 22, 2014

The climate and our health: worrisome projections

Recent reports about climate change make the future look bleak for North Carolinians and others across the globe.

The reports are out and the projections are scary for the future. One report out earlier this week said much of Charleston and Hatteras could be under water if steps aren’t taken now to protect them. Another warns that less nutritious food will be available for consumption. Still another says that the southeast will suffer more droughts in the future, which means reduced farm and livestock production. All of these issues can affect public health.

Before going farther, there is a point I want to make about climate studies. When we study the past, both distant and recent, we are looking at hard facts including recent daily measurements and ice core samples taken from the polar ice caps. Scientists are highly confident about these things, and rightly so.

When we talk about the future of the climate, we have to use the word “projections.” These projections are based on climate models. Much like the computer models we use for forecasting the weather for the next few days, climate models are only as good as the initial data put into them. Historical data is accurate and present data is accurate, but what about future data? Future data is based on educated guesses and assumptions such as “if the trend continues at a constant rate, then here’s what we’ll see,” or “if the temperature increases by this amount, then the climate will look like this.” The results are truly highly educated guesses and are not set in stone.

Based on the reports from recent studies, we can look at potential problems now and start addressing them before they become overwhelming. One local group, the Research Triangle Environmental Health Collaborative (RTEHC) published a report from their 2013 Environmental Health Summit, which based most of its discussions on the preliminary findings of the International Panel on Climate Change issued in September of 2013.

This report looked at three major demographics of North Carolina: rural, urban, and coastal, and how climate change could affect the public health within each group. It identified and described the most pressing climate change-related public health impacts, the most relevant gaps in knowledge and research for each, and recommended actions to address those impacts that can be started now.

As this series continues, we’ll consider each demographic of the state and how projected changes could affect the health of the populations according to this report and get the perspective of some of our local climate scientists. Some examples of public health concerns include an increase in diseases from insect bites, a decrease in air quality, and increases in malnutrition and the problems it can cause, especially in children. Next week, expect to read how the urban areas of North Carolina might be affected.

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