Climate change and health: A clear and present danger

Mosquitos seek out human and animal blood and sometimes spread sickness like the West Nile virus. (File photo)
Mosquitos seek out human and animal blood and sometimes spread sickness like the West Nile virus. (File photo)

Most Iowans see climate change as a threat, but a vague, distant threat impacting people on the other side of the world. But the truth is that the impacts of climate change are here in Iowa — right now, in the form of new and dangerous trends.

The impacts on Iowans of climate change — caused primarily by our consumption of fossil fuels — are many. Our summers are getting hotter and longer (in many parts of Iowa spring is starting two to four weeks earlier), winters are warmer and shorter (parts of our state are having rainstorms during January instead of snow), and extreme weather is more frequent and intense (from the major droughts we experienced in 2012-13, to the five major floods since the late ’90s). These extreme weather events, particularly floods and droughts, have caused agricultural and economic losses of billions of dollars, displaced people, and led to loss of life for humans, livestock and wildlife.

According to conservative projections, by the end of this century the Earth’s average temperature will rise more than 7 degrees. More significantly for Iowa, the centers of large continents will see temperature increases about twice this much, or about 14 degrees. Since Iowa’s current average high temperature in the month of July is 86 degrees, an increase of 14 degrees would mean our new average high would be 100 degrees. The consequences to human health, crops, livestock and wildlife of such temperatures would be devastating and bring great suffering to our state. Make no mistake; dangerous heat is not something that happens only in Third World countries. In 2003, a heat wave baked most of Europe, resulting in 70,000 deaths.

With rising temperatures comes deteriorating air quality in the form of rising ground-level ozone, posing a serious health risk to Iowans, particularly our children. While ozone at higher elevations of the atmosphere is a good thing, at ground level it is a toxic pollutant that triggers asthma and other breathing problems.

Climbing temperatures are causing a significant increase in vector-borne diseases, carried by ticks, mosquitoes and rodents. In Iowa, the number of Lyme disease cases has tripled since 2011, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warning that 2017 could be one of the worst summers on record for ticks. As our climate changes, formerly tropical diseases, like West Nile virus, are beginning to move into more northern latitudes. Cases have been confirmed in 45 states, including Iowa.

Current health care costs resulting from fossil fuel pollution and climate change are estimated to be in the range of hundreds of billions of dollars nationally. This cost, born by taxpayers, will only increase in the future, if CO2 levels continue to rise unchecked.

Iowans are positive, down-to-earth people who face their challenges head-on. It’s time for us and our political leaders to stop the partisan rhetoric and work together to avert this unprecedented danger. Our strategies must be multipronged and include phasing-out fossil fuel use, enacting a revenue-neutral carbon tax (all revenue is returned to taxpayers), investing in renewable energy and carbon sequestration technologies, eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, and rewarding farmers and ranchers for adopting carbon sequestrating, regenerative practices.


In addition, every city and county government as well as our state government must have a climate crisis plan in place to mitigate these present and upcoming crises.

As our grandmothers were fond of saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Let’s get started now.

• Mary Tarnoff is chair of the Legislative Action Committee of the Southeast Iowa Sierra Club



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