Heat-related deaths, the spread of infectious diseases and the threat of natural disasters in Chicago could skyrocket in the coming decades unless greenhouse gas emissions are curbed, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
In the 2009 report, projections for Chicago suggest that the average number of deaths due to heat waves could quadruple by 2050. The Chicago Climate Action Plan said greenhouse emissions could jump 35 percent by that time.
Heat waves are the leading cause of weather-related deaths across the country. In July 1995, an extreme heat wave hit Chicago, killing over 750 people and hospitalizing thousands more. Projections from the Chicago Climate Task-Force show that heat waves as severe as the 1995 event could occur as frequently as every other year by the end of the century.
Kevin Lafferty, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said people are still too focused on the negative effects of climate change and not the solution. “This isn’t simply about trying to figure out worse case scenarios or scaring people. But it’s about actually trying to figure out what’s going to happen under certain climate change scenarios,” he said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, extreme weather events such as hurricanes and flooding could also have dramatic health effects. Such disasters have been responsible for carbon monoxide poisoning or gastrointestinal illness during periods of rebuilding. Heavy rain and flooding can also interrupt medical care, aggravating chronic medical conditions.
Dr. Helen Binns, a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, said that higher rates of extreme weather events could lead to health problems from people fleeing their homes. “Droughts and fires, particulate matter from fires, storms and floods could all lead to displacement,” she said.
“There’s no doubt among mainstream scientists that climate is changing and that we’re contributing to it,” said Dr. Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard University Medical School. “I really think that there’s a deep down emotional desire to think this evolving instability in the climate and its potential consequences for our health, for the global community, for politics is not really happening. But it’s very real.”
However, climate change could reduce extremely cold temperatures and therefore the number of deaths resulting from frigid conditions. A recent study cited by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which coordinates federal research, analyzed daily mortality and weather data with regards to over 6 million deaths in 50 U.S. cities, including Chicago, between 1989 and 2000 and showed a major difference in the deaths resulting from hot and cold temperatures. The study said that on average, cold snaps increased death rates by 1.6 percent while heat-wave deaths increased by 5.7 percent.
“Overall, winters are about 20 days shorter than they were in 1970,” Epstein said. “But there are also more variables. Global warming is causing climate change meaning warming and changes in weather patterns.”
The U.S. Global Change Research Program report also detailed how climate change is resulting in foreign diseases migrating beyond their typical borders. As temperatures rise, insect-borne diseases such as West Nile virus have popped up in Chicago, since mosquitoes are more prevalent. Since 2002, almost 1,200 human cases of West Nile virus have been reported in Cook and DuPage counties.
Past outbreaks of West Nile virus have followed periods of dry and warm temperatures. Floods could also create the perfect storm for large outbreaks, as heavy rains create mosquito-breeding sites along roadways and in receptacles.
According to Epstein, Hurricane Mitch dumped over six feet of rain on Central America in November 1998, killing more than 11,000 people. Following the disaster, more than 60,000 people died in Honduras as a result of cholera, malaria and dengue fever.
“Almost every time there’s a heavy flood or drought we see clusters of infectious disease in the aftermath,” Epstein said. “That’s the effect climate has on water-borne, mosquito-borne and even rodent-borne infections.”
Agriculture is especially susceptible to climate change. Food crops thrive in a particular temperature and precipitation ranges and as weather patterns shift, models predict that yields will decline. According to the Chicago Climate Action Plan, the city is preparing for the impact of climate change on agriculture by cultivating more weather-resistant plants.
Gerald Nelson, coordinator of climate change efforts at the International Food Policy Research Institute and author of a 2009 climate report, is all too familiar with the projected impacts of climate change on food production.
“Climate change means higher temperatures and higher temperatures means more evaporation,” Nelson said. “Then that water goes into the atmosphere. All of these things have effects on agriculture.”
Nelson’s report predicted that by 2050, the world could see a 2 to 10 percent increase in precipitation on land, which can have a negative impact on food crops.
If that happens, food prices will increase, which Nelson says will hit developing nations especially hard. Nearly 2.5 billion people in these countries rely on agriculture to support themselves.
More importantly, the declining availability of food crops will lead to an increase in malnutrition. According to the 2009 report, child malnutrition will increase by 20 percent by 2050 because of the changing climate, however more developed cities such as Chicago are not expected to be as vulnerable.
Some see the raging public debate about climate change as a largely psychological matter. Psychiatrist and environmental activist Lise van Susteren runs a private practice in Washington D.C. and has a unique perspective on the changing climate. She sees a correlation between her passion for psychiatry and for the environment.
“It’s a lot like psychiatry. People come in, they’ve got stuff they’ve been hanging onto,” she said. “If they don’t let go of it or fix it, more bad stuff is going to come down the pike.”
Van Susteren said that people don’t often care more about climate change because they do not fully understand the science behind it. “They form an opinion, but it’s a bias,” she said. “It’s not something that’s formed based on careful analysis.”
Others agree that a lack of understanding could be behind the refusal to accept climate change and its effects.
“The issue has proven to be very difficult for the American people to wrap their minds around,” said Ed Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication in Alexandria, Va.
Unless properly explained, Maibach said he believes some people will continue to be apathetic about our warming climate. “Climate change isn’t inherently engaging, it doesn’t inherently make people care, or want to do something different than they are already doing.”
Even with the myriad reasons people have for not acting on climate change, van Susteren said she believes there is a larger, underlying problem. “We are culturally, as a civilization, in denial about what we are faced with.”
This denial, she said, is a normal human reaction. “We don’t really like to hear bad news,” she said. “Despite the horrifying predictions for us, personally for humans, for our natural environment, for all the flora and fauna, for the hundreds of millions of people who stand to be displaced by sea level rise – why doesn’t the world hear it?”