Thursday, September 26, 2013

Putting people into the climate change picture

A farmer examines a field baked dry by drought.

Forget the image of a polar bear stranded on a shrinking ice floe. “Climate change is not just about polar bears. It’s a societal issue,” said George Luber, associate director for climate change at the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health.

Luber recently kicked off a fall lecture series on climate change put together by Emory’s Department of Environmental Studies. Luber is a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report.

“If you’re a people person, you ought to care about climate change,” he said.

Rising sea levels and more extreme weather events like floods, droughts, wildfires, major storms and heat waves are some of the better-known examples of how humans will be affected, he said.

What’s harder to grasp is how a warmer planet can cause catastrophic snowfall. Diminished ice coverage in the Great Lakes, Luber explained, makes more water available for evaporation, which can translate to heavier snowfall in the winter.

“Cities and climates are co-evolving in a manner that will place more populations at risk,” he said. He noted that, in 2008, the proportion of people living in cities reached 50 percent for the first time.

One confusing aspect of climate change is variation in the trend of warmer weather. Here's a great animation explaining the difference between trend and variation:

Heat waves are generally alleviated by cooler evenings, enabling people to better withstand the shock of extreme daytime temperatures. That’s changing, however, as urban heat island effects are allowing almost no cooling at night, Luber said. He cited a recent record high for a night-time temperature in Phoenix of 99 degrees.

A few other health impacts Luber noted:

Higher urban temperatures cause an increase in harmful ozone concentrations.

Wind-carried dust, including such dramatic displays as haboobs, help disperse fungal infections like Valley Fever.

Harmful algae blooms and their associated toxins could be spurred by warmer than usual water temperatures and other factors related to climate change.

Higher temperatures, drought and torrential rainfall stress plants and degrade agricultural cops. Elevated carbon dioxide levels also lower the protein concentrations in grains that feed the world.

Lyme disease, spread by ticks, and other vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, dengue fever and West Nile virus, are expected to expand their prevalence and range.

A dust storm closes in on homes in Phoenix.

Mental health is another concern, as people deal with everything from the trauma of extreme weather events to the day-to-day stress of a booming population in a warming world. “Much like a previous generation feared nuclear annihilation, climate change weighs on kids today,” Luber said. “Paralysis is an easy consequence of all this fear.”

Uriel Kitron, chair of environmental studies, put together the lecture series for students in his Seminar on Environmental Studies. Others are welcomed to attend the talks, but be forewarned: It’s standing room only.

“The goal is to give a better understanding of the human impact on the environment and the acuteness of the problem of a changing climate,” Kitron says. “We can’t just sit back and watch.”

Five more talks are planned for the series, which continues through December 2. Upcoming speakers include Eri Saikawa, from Emory’s Department of Environmental Studies, Karen Levy, of Rollins School of Public Health, and Daniel Rochberg, an Emory graduate who is now with the U.S. State Department. Click for the full schedule: Talks begin at 4 pm in the Math and Science Center, room N306.

Crime may rise along with Earth's temperatures
Why the future of fuel lies in artificial photosynthesis

Photo credits: Top,; bottom, Wikipedia Commons.

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