Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States

>> Bob Simon: Good Afternoon and welcome to the White House. Welcome, too, to those who are viewing our event today on the web via livestream. >> Male Speaker: Is that mic on? (inaudible) >> Bob Simon: Yes, it is. >> Male Speaker: Okay (inaudible). >> Bob Simon: Yes, it’s on. >> Male Speaker: Okay. >> Bob Simon: We’re glad that all of you are able to share in the event today. Today we’re pleased to discuss a major new scientific assessment that has been completed on the impacts of climate change on human health in the United States. This report has been three years in the making and its scientific assessment of what is known about the impacts of climate change on human health and the degree of confidence that one can have in that knowledge is a significant contribution to the science on this subject. Today’s introduction and discussion of this new report will begin with a conversation between Dr.

John Holdren and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. Dr. John P. Holdren is the President Obama’s Science and Technology Advisor and the Senate-confirmed director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In this capacity he’s responsible for the administration’s National Science and Technology Council which oversees the U.S. Global Change Research Program which produced today’s report. His involvement today is only appropriate as he is a leading climate expert. Prior to being appointed as the President’s science advisor, Dr. Holdren spent most of his career as a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard, leading into disciplinary programs focused on energy and technology and policy, environmental change, nuclear arms control and non-proliferation, and science and technology policy. Gina McCarthy is administrator of the U.S.

Environmental Protection Agency, appointed by President Obama in 2009 as the assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. She has been a leading advocate for common sense strategies to protect public health and environment. Previously Administrator McCarthy served as commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. During her career which spans over 30 years she has worked at both the state and local level on critical environmental issues and has helped to coordinate policies on economic growth, energy, transportation, and the environment. Please join me in welcoming them both to the stage to start our discussion this afternoon. (applause) >> John Holdren: Well, thank you, Bob, and thanks to all of you for being here today. It’s a pleasure to be up here with my friend and colleague Gina McCarthy to talk about the new scientific assessment of climate change and its impacts on human health in the United States. If not a whole of government effort, this was certainly a much of government effort with eight departments and agencies involved, over 100 scientists.

The leadership of the study came from EPA, from HHS, from NOAA, all under the auspices, as Bob Simon has already mentioned, of the U.S. Global Change Research Program and it really demonstrates I think the capacity of the U.S. Global Change Research Program not only to fund research on aspects of global environmental change, but to convene experts from across the government to combine their knowledge, to assess critically what is out there in the literature, and then to build on that with new analyses, new assessments, as this particular study has done. Before we get into the details of this new assessment and hear from some of the authors and hear some more from Administrator McCarthy about EPA’s perspective on this work, I want to start by providing just a little bit of context in terms of what we actually know about climate change. Interestingly enough, understanding that increasing the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide would influence the Earth’s climate goes back to the middle of the 1800s. Some people imagine that this is a new idea; it is not a new idea; it was recognized by farseeing scientists in the middle 1800s and the era in which the scientific community began to take on board that this was not just a theoretical problem, but a real problem in the real world, really began in the late ’50s, early 1960s.

So we’ve got basically 50 years of increasingly intense study of the climate change issue and those five decades and more of intensive observation, monitoring, analysis, have led to the establishment of I would say five crucial facts that are indeed today established beyond reasonable doubt. The first of those is that the Earth’s climate is changing at a pace and in a pattern that is not explainable by our well-understood, natural influences on climate. Climate has been changing of course for millennia under a variety of natural influences. Those are reasonably well-understood; they do not explain what we have been seeing in recent decades. A second fact is that what does indeed explain what we have been seeing is the buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases and particles resulting from human activities, primarily the combustion of fossil fuels and land use change. The third fact established beyond reasonable doubt is that climate change is already causing harm to people, to economies, and to ecosystems in many parts of the world and we’ll come back to that, of course in the U.S.

context, in a minute. The fourth fundamental fact is that that harm will continue to grow for some time to come, both because of the time lags and inertia built into the Earth’s climate system, but also the inertia in civilization’s energy system. We are not able to transform civilization’s energy system overnight. The fifth insight, and this is very important, is that the amount of harm to be expected going forward will be much smaller if society takes aggressive, effective action to limit the amount of harm than if we don’t; big difference in the expected consequences based on the action that we do or do not take. The recent observed and measured changes in climate around the world include a multi-decade increase in the global average surface air temperature, but they are not limited to that. That’s what most people talk about, how many degrees warming have we seen, how many will we see, but in fact the changes also include increased temperatures in the ocean, a decline in Arctic sea ice extent, accelerated sea level rise, increased moisture in the atmosphere accompanied by an increase in torrential downpours and associated flooding, increased numbers of extremely hot days, and in some regions increases in drought, wildfire, and unusually powerful storms.

The reality of those changes and the conclusion that human influence on climate is the principal culprit rest on an enormous number of measurements and observations made by thousands of scientists at tens of thousands of locations around the world, recorded in an enormous number of peer-reviewed publications and reviews of reviews of reviews of the scientific validity of that body of work. The key findings, the findings that I have just summarized, have been endorsed by every major National Academy of Sciences in the world, including those of China, India, Russia, Brazil, as well as that of the United States, have been endorsed by nearly every U.S. scientific professional society, by the World Meteorological Organization, by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and by our own “Third National Climate Assessment” which we released just two years ago. Those changes have a broad range of impacts across many sectors of American society in virtually every region of the United States, as the “Third National Climate Assessment” documented, but now in the new report we have a fresh assessment of the impact of these changes on an aspect of human well-being whose importance everybody understands: that is human health.

The assessment that we are releasing today is based on review and analysis of over 1, 800 peer-reviewed publications, but also an overlay of additional study, analysis, modeling, and conclusions that in turn have been reviewed — peer-reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences, among others. So, Gina, let me turn to you as the head of the EPA and ask you what kinds of impacts are we seeing from climate change as recorded in this study that concern you from a public health perspective? >> Gina McCarthy: Well, John, thank you for the introduction. I was going to say happy National Public Health Week, but it sounds kind of like I shouldn’t do that, but — (laughter) — it’s not — it’s not unhappy news, because for the first time we really — this document provides a really comprehensive scientific foundation that will tell us what the damages, what the concerns are with public health and climate in a way that it can feed into policy folks, feed into government entities, NGOs, individuals who really want to know what the future is going to look like, what we’re already seeing in terms of impacts, and what we might do to mitigate and adapt to those impacts, but this is the first time I think in history we’ve been able to really look at this and show that it’s not just about polar bears and melting ice caps.

>> Male Speaker: Yeah. >> Gina McCarthy: It’s about our kids; it’s about families; it’s about our future; it’s about what our core value is and what we do to meet our moral responsibility to our kids in that future. So this is a really great document to sink your teeth into. While you won’t be reading happy news, if knowledge is power, we need it and that’s what we have here for the first time and, John, I want to thank you for all of your leadership with the team and also the folks at EPA, because I can remember in 2013 when EPA was putting out our “Climate Indicators” report, the one indicator that was the weakest was the one that I wanted to be the strongest, which was the public health indicators and we’re all sitting there, scratching our heads, saying “How come you can talk about precipitation, intense storms, sea level rise” — you know, we could talk about a lot of those things, but quantify none of the public health impacts directly and so it’s been a remarkable journey over the past two years to actually get this science under our belt in a way that even the National Academies have reviewed and provided input on.

So it’s a — it’s a — it’s a great thing and frankly it is a wakeup call, because there are a number of impacts that we are seeing here that we’re already feeling and a number of impacts so that you can virtually see that every human being in every part of the United States is impacted now by climate and will get increasingly impacted if we do not take action now to try to reduce those impacts. So we’re talking about everything from impacting our food, our water, our air, and our weather and if that’s not enough, it’s probably impacting how happy you are every day and what your mental health status is. So if you take a look at this, we’re seeing things, John, that I think you know well, which is you’re seeing an actual increase in deaths and illnesses resulting from increased challenges to meet our ozone standard, because as the weather gets warmer we see significant challenges in meeting the health-based standards that we have set for ourselves that is resulting in significant, quantified impacts on public health that are in this document.

You are seeing for the first time a lot of better articulation of the challenge of wildfires associated with this, which is actually fairly frightening, to look at what are we going to do to manage our forests better, recognizing that you’re going to see a lot of naturally-occurring, significant damage as a result of wildfires and all of the trauma that that causes. You are looking at waterborne illnesses and increases in waterborne illnesses. You’re looking at challenges that are related to more intense floods and droughts. So you’re looking at whether or not we can deliver clean drinking water and whether there is drinking water to drink that’s available. We’re seeing those challenges today; it means in a changing climate they are going to be more severe as we move along. For the first time, John, I am seeing — and this is — we talked about this. There’s always something new to learn, which is really kind of fun.

We’re looking at food safety issues. We’re looking at foodborne illnesses potentially becoming much more serious. We’re looking at the instability in food supplies that can happen as a result of extreme weather events and we’re looking at the fact that increases in CO2 actually can rob proteins and significant minerals that we’re now getting in our — in our food supply, like wheat and rice, and if that is lower in its nutritional value what does that mean overall? So it documents these not only, in many cases, in terms of our quantified results, but for those where we cannot, we can look at the changes that we see over time and hopefully it will guide in our ability to take action in the U.S.

, which we know under this President we are doing, action that has spurred international action as well, but it also challenges us to look at the costs associated with inaction and what that means for the future of our kids. >> John Holdren: Great. Well, Gina, you gave us quite a tour of the health impacts of climate change. I would mention just a couple of others: one is allergens; longer, more intense allergy seasons with particular effects on the very substantial number of Americans and particularly young Americans who have asthma aggravated by these allergens. A second one worthy of further mention is vector-borne diseases. In the study, the principal focus on vector-borne diseases was on tick-borne Lyme disease and mosquito-borne West Nile virus, simply because those have been extensively studied, but the report points out that we can expect further changes in the seasonality and the geographic range of a number of vector-borne diseases as climate change proceeds. The last one that I would mention, that is very striking I think in this report, is heat-related illness and death. The report projects that under middle of the road emissions scenarios, we can see from thousands to tens of thousands additional heat-related deaths in the United States each summer and the numbers are really very striking and it comes from the fact that modest increases in average temperature are associated with large increases at the tails of the distribution and that means big increases in extreme heat events, extremely hot days and heat waves, which mean five or more extremely hot days in a row.

In some parts of the world, when you look more broadly at this question, you see the likelihood that in the hottest times of the year it will be simply physiologically impossible to work outdoors; that means agriculture; that means construction. People who try to work outdoors will basically be unable to control their body temperature and will die. This is a really, really big deal and it’s going to be a big deal in the hottest parts of the United States as well as in the Middle East, in South Asia, and other places. >> Gina McCarthy: John, I would also add that I think this report does a really good job at looking at vulnerable populations, not just by looking at those populations, but looking at how each of these health-related impacts will impact different populations differently, but it shows that while everybody will be impacted, you have some significant populations, kids, pregnant women, the elderly, low-income, some minorities, that really will be disproportionally impacted by these health consequences and it really sort of reminds ourselves I think that we have significant job to do to figure out how we adapt to a changing climate and what those adaptation strategies might be, but also it is a real wakeup call for innovating and investing in a low-carbon future today and not waiting and I think, John, you know that the President has called in his Climate Action Plan not only for really good science, which this represents, but really good responses to that science and EPA’s moving forward in a bunch of different fronts, which we can get at if anybody’s interested.

>> John Holdren: Yeah, let’s — >> Gina McCarthy: I always like to talk about that. (laughter) >> John Holdren: Well, let’s come back to that in a minute. I just — I just want to amplify something you just said, Gina, which is when the President released his Climate Action Plan a couple of years ago now and followed it up with the extraordinary leadership that the United States showed, moving into the Conference of the Parties — the 21st Conference of the Parties of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris this last December and achieved this remarkable result where 196 countries have stepped up with their own targets of how much they’re going to reduce their emissions by 2025 or 2030 and commitments from the developed countries to assist countries in need, both with investments in mitigation and in adaptation. Basically what that reflected was as understanding that the whole panoply of impacts of climate change requires not just national, but global action and it requires action both on the mitigation front, on reducing the offending emissions, but also on investing in increased preparedness, resilience, and adaptation to deal with the changes in climate and their consequences in the human health domain, in the ecological domain, in the infrastructure domain, changes in climate that are no longer avoidable.

There is a huge difference between the amount of climate change and impact we’ll have to deal with under high emission scenarios versus under low emission scenarios, but we cannot avoid impacts altogether and we’re going to have to deal with those by investment on the preparedness, resilience, and adaptation front, but let me come back to you, Gina, and EPA. Doesn’t this all simply reinforce the 2009 “Endangerment Finding” that EPA made and which is really the underpinning of EPA’s approaches to dealing with these challenges? >> Gina McCarthy: Well, it’s really — I’m so glad you mentioned that, because we were talking about that — just when we were leaving the early press release I was talking to a couple of the EPA folks and it seems like decades ago we did the “Endangerment Finding.” Does it seem like it to anybody else? (laughter) Let’s hope the Supreme Court remembers all those good decisions — (laughter) — because it was — it was a remarkable accomplishment and it does actually underscore it.

It’s just building on the wealth of evidence that we have here and I think one of the things I like best about this report is that we quantify where we can, but we also express this in terms of our confidence in the likelihood — you know, our confidence in the data and the evidence and the likelihood that the impacts we’re anticipating will happen. This gives people a really good sense of what the consensus is of all of the top science on this and scientists and I mean it’s expressed the same way as the IPCC assessment and it really shows the strength of the data and I’m hoping that it continues to jumpstart the conversation about the dangers of inaction and the absolute essential nature of the call to action that this — that this public health impact is going to sort of ignite and I’m hoping it results in really innovation, it results in investment in a low-carbon future, and it provides the support we need as policy-makers and as leaders in government to actually take the action we need that’s commensurate with the core values we all hold dear and the challenge to those core values that climate change poses.

>> John Holdren: Great. Well, thank you, Gina; really appreciate your being here to discuss the broad contours of this new report and its relation to what EPA’s mission of protecting human health primarily is. I also want to note that we have been joined by Senator Ed Markey, one of the great leaders in the United States Senate on the issue of climate change — (applause) — and we’re certainly all looking forward to hearing Senator Markey’s perspective on these issues a little later in the program. For now though we are going to launch into some of the comprehensive scientific findings in this assessment in more detail with a panel on the key findings. That panel will be moderated by Christine Blackburn of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

I think if you look at your program, you will note and even if you don’t, you will soon discover the multi-agency character of this panel; that mirrors the multi-agency expertise that was brought to bear on this study being launched today. So with that, let me thank you again, Gina, and ask all of you to join me in welcoming Christine and the panelists to the stage. >> Gina McCarthy: Thank you, Doc. (applause).