Climate Change, Divestment & Human Health

A few years ago, a rising tide of people argued that news organizations had rolled over and, without necessarily intending to, were helping skew the climate change debate in favor of the “merchants of doubt.”  Over the past few years, the pendulum has swung back and there is more media coverage of the facts on the ground. The latest observations and studies from the world’s scientists are being widely reported again.

So, at least in the United States, more people are again generally aware of what is happening and what is projected to happen – rising ocean levels, increased frequency and intensity of storms and the like. We’ve come back on track to where things were headed about a decade ago in terms of popular awareness. (Many of our fellow citizens on planet earth never took the side trip.) A clear majority of Americans believe that global warming is real, and are at least generally aware of the major environmental impacts.

But, whether you are American or from some other county, try this experiment. Ask people you know about the connections between global warming and human health. At best, some people have a sense of anticipated direct effects from extreme weather events – people in parts of India and Europe getting slammed by unusually long heat waves, or powerful tornadoes in the mid-western United States. Some will mention the problems with extended droughts in Africa and Australia. That’s probably about it. A recent study by the Yale Project on Climate Change indicated that only 18-32% of Americans understood some of the main human health implications of global warming. The gap in global warming human health literacy is incredible – but not surprising given the lack of media attention and the efforts of those who want to erase all concern.

Describing the projected impacts concisely is not straightforward. That’s because the number of angles is gigantic, and there are lots of interconnected loops and complex feedback paths. But, here’s a short-list of some major drivers and effects that public health and medical professionals note:

Water:

  • falling fishery  yields
  • regional water scarcity
  • access to potable water

Land:

  • falling crop yields
  • massive migration away from coastal areas
  • more frequent and severe wildfires
  • migration and shifts in insect populations

Air:

  • extreme heat events
  • more frequent and severe storms
  • rising ground level ozone

With a little bit of imagination (or spending some time looking at reputable work on the web), it’s not hard to guess how these things are really bad from a human health perspective. Some of the drivers amplify existing human health problems that people and communities already struggle with. Others create health crises where there weren’t any – with major challenges around food production and access to water leading the pack.

All this is additive to the more immediate direct health problems caused by burning fossil fuels in the first place. The experiences of the western countries with smog in the 20th century and the current pictures of what coal is doing to China make that pretty clear.

All these problems will first hit those least able to fight the effects: the elderly, the poor, the chronically ill, and children.

Tying this back to fossil fuel divestment, the moral argument around climate change and human health is obvious. As with other aspects of the divestment debate, there is also a powerful financial aspect. It makes far more sense to prevent the problem by lowering our global carbon footprint now – instead of creating an astronomical bill in the future to pay for all the health problems we will face.

The argument for divestment is about saving the environment. It’s about saving us. There is no space between. As Joanna Macy has said, “Our earth is not a supply house and a sewer. It is our larger body. We breathe it. We taste it. We are it.”

Hopefully, journalists and the media begin to step it up on this side of the story, too.  In the meantime – divest now.  And then tell everyone you know about it – including local and national media outlets, and your representatives in state and federal government. Tell them to get moving now. Money and votes make things happen.

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