By Jack Clarke
Either science matters or it doesn’t. Policy makers can’t have it both ways and selectively apply it only when it advances a political agenda.
Science should inform and drive public policy not the other way around – this is especially true when it comes to the health of the American people.
In the case of the coronavirus pandemic and the climate change crisis, nowhere is the advancement of science more important. Lives depend on its accuracy, use and availability.
According to NASA scientists, 97 percent or more of published climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are “likely due to human activities.” Yet the President calls it a hoax and, along with many in Congress, refuses to believe the science. On the national level, denying what science teaches us about the short and long-term consequences of climate change will have dire consequences for this and future generations.
Scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tell us that failure to take the climate emergency seriously now will result in lives lost as sea level rise accelerates, storms get stronger, droughts and fires increase, and the days get hotter. This fact is also acknowledged by scientists in many other federal agencies, including the Defense Department.
While America and the world grapples with the coronavirus, climate scientists and health experts forecast threats from additional infectious diseases spurred on by rising temperatures.
Mosquito-driven illnesses like dengue fever, West Nile, and Zika will become more common this century, they warn us, as the insects that transmit them expand their habitat range.
The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately a-quarter-million additional deaths per year world-wide from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress. And, as we are seeing from the coronavirus, no one is immune from illnesses once thought of as exotic.
With the prospect of those diseases appearing in the US, we need to start addressing the public health emergency of climate change and limit the spread of these afflictions – and we’re not.
Dr. Kristie Ebi, a climate and public health scientist at the University of Washington and an IPCC contributor says she’s “worried we’re not prepared” – She’s not the only one.
“The Lancet,” a journal that “make(s) science widely available so that medicine can serve, and transform society,” recently launched its “Countdown” project to provide an independent, global scientific monitoring system tracking the health dimensions of climate change. It views climate change as this century’s “biggest public health threat.”
As with the coronavirus, we are all vulnerable to the public health impacts of climate change. Some, however, are more vulnerable than others and minority communities, pregnant women, children and the elderly will suffer disproportionately.
Unfortunately, as with climate change, the White House disregarded the science of medical experts from at home and around the world who predicted the current pandemic and it wasted January and February playing down the threat from the new virus.
Like the science of climate change, the President called the pandemic a political hoax, even though medical science informed the WHO’s decision to declare the outbreak a global public health emergency at the end of January. The White House was informed of its potential consequences on January 5th.
Now, America’s confirmed cases of Covid-19 are unnecessarily the highest in the world with nearly 800,000 infected and 42,500 dead – thousands of which could likely have been prevented if the science was taken seriously.
The World Economic Forum recently recognized the relationship between the climate change crisis and coronavirus and reported that a “global-to-local response and long-term thinking” is needed with responses guided by science and “the political will to make fundamental changes when faced with (these) risks.”
“The Nation” magazine recently referred to the pandemic as a “dress rehearsal” for what we can expect with the impending impacts of climate change.
Climate author David Wallace-Wells calls it a “sobering preview” of what is to come if we continue to ignore the science of climate change.
Whatever it is, we’re not prepared for it.
Believing or not believing the science can be a life or death situation, as we see now. We ignore and downplay its legitimacy and conclusions, at our own and our children’s peril.
When it comes to climate change and the public’s health, it’s time to act.
Jack Clarke is the director of public policy and government relations at Mass Audubon.