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Climate change is increasingly damaging human health



There was a point in my life when the words “climate change” would elicit pictures of polar bears marooned on precarious chunks of ice, bobbing aimlessly in some abstract landscape of tundra and sea. Today, however, climate change calls to mind a blue-lipped child struggling for air, her asthma incited by the wildfire smoke that too often drifts through the Front Range toward the plains. The term recalls the ozone alert flashing along the Interstate 25 corridor, which indicates dangerous heat and air quality conditions that threaten to land vulnerable Coloradans in emergency rooms and intensive care units. It summons thoughts of the countless families afflicted by emotional trauma after losing their most prized possessions, entire farms and even loved ones in the fires, droughts and floods that seem to strike our communities with ever greater violence. I now think of climate change as a mounting threat to workers and the economy and as an unprecedented stress on our infrastructure — through its capacity to worsen pre-existing health problems, expand vector-borne diseases, facilitate malnutrition and threaten the community bonds that confer resilience and gird us against mental illness.

For most folks, such a characterization is enough to draw attention and arouse the sensibilities, irrespective of whether one votes red or blue. Accordingly, it is high time that we come to a collective understanding that climate change is not a political issue; it is an existential one.

In October of this year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released an alarming report that detailed the perils of an Earth 1.5 ˚C warmer than pre-industrial times. The IPCC’s admonishments caused a 
fleeting stir in major newsrooms, but quickly receded into the background.

Weeks elapsed, Paradise burned, and the 4th National Climate Assessment (NCA) report briefly captured headlines. Released on Black Friday (which may have attenuated the resulting fanfare), the product of 13 federal agencies corroborates the findings of the IPCC: with continued “business as usual” polluting habits, our forecast for the future ranges from very bad to apocalyptic.
Finally, in the closing days of November, the annual Lancet Countdown on health and climate change was published. It concludes that we are not progressing quickly enough to curb our emissions of planet-harming greenhouse gases, nor are we constructing the necessary bulwarks against the emerging threats to human health at a pace commensurate with current climate projections.

With three chilling reports in less than two months, we ought to see the proverbial handwriting on the wall: Climate change is happening now, our behaviors are driving it, it is hurting us and it will hurt us more if we fail to correct our habits. Nevertheless, I fear that these consensus findings will once again fade from the forefront of the public conscious. I fear our political environment, which so often seems committed to inertia and inaction.

For those of us in Colorado Springs, this final dread is all too familiar: Our mayor rebuked other leaders who criticized the president’s decision to renege on our Paris Climate Accord obligations, our representative in Congress openly denies climate change, and we live under the auspices of a presidential administration that, at best, will not be remembered for its environmental stewardship.

Yet, I still believe there is cause for hope. We have a few years to initiate aggressive actions to mitigate our environmental impacts. To succeed, climate change — and our contribution to it — needs to occupy a central though 
perhaps uncomfortable place in our public discourse. It needs to inform our daily decision-making, from what we eat to how we move to who we vote for. How do we get there?

To start, we need to change the way we talk about climate change. I began this piece with a limited illustration of how climate change can affect health; such a framework enables us to understand that climate change affects us all, here and now.

Though climate change will continue to harm us, it is not too late to change course. Not yet. Climate change is indelibly linked to human health and well-being. Once we understand this as a society, we can finally focus public attention on the urgent need to curtail global emissions and adapt for the climatological effects that we can no longer prevent. With swift incremental action and stalwart will, we can avert the worst and minimize the human costs we incur. No matter what, we — all of us — will foot the bill.

Jake Fox is a Colorado Springs Native and student at the University of 
Colorado School of Medicine and Colorado School of Public Health. 
His views do not necessarily represent those of either school.

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