Here in Iowa, we see the impacts of climate change yet again as deadly floods overwhelm our communities and much of the upper Midwest. Once again floods risk lives and ravage our agriculture sector. Many of us have seen this all before — during the summers of 2018, 2011, 2008, and 1993. The exact range of the flooding changes, but the pattern of worsening tragedy followed by indifference continues unabated.
Each of these floods followed and marked new weather extremes. But once the waters begin to recede, memories fade and attention turns elsewhere, as we’re seeing now — until it happens again. How many floods have to happen before state and national leaders act to protect our environment, our climate, and our future?
Loss of life and the damage to crops, livestock and farmland rightfully capture the headlines. But beyond these immediate dangers, more hidden and less obvious threats to health present, during the flood itself and well after the waters have begun to recede. During floods, water sources are at risk for contamination, with serious health implications. Drinking water and recreational waterways become contaminated with a slurry of toxics from sewage, petroleum and industrial pollutants, and agricultural animal waste. The biggest risk factor may be the lack of awareness of what’s in the water.
The direct deposits of multiple pollutants in water runoff present serious short- and long-term health challenges. They are very costly to clean up. At the same time, floodwater seepage into homes, even those appearing to be minimally affected, can lead to mold formation during and after flooding. Mold can lurk behind drywall, under carpeting, in furniture, or in insulation, making it hard to detect. Mold triggers allergic reactions and respiratory symptoms, including asthma attacks in vulnerable populations, especially the very young and elders. Unfortunately, not only can mold be difficult to detect, but it is also costly to remove once widespread.
Finally, these long term risks all lead to real costs on the already strained health care system and the economy.
Iowa’s communities and farmers have suffered the increasing severity of storms and borne the costs for decades. Since 1990, Iowa has experienced 43 presidentially declared disasters. Rising temperatures, wetter springs, and more frequent and extreme weather events increasingly threaten our farmers, our water, our health and economy. Without climate action, locally and nationally, Iowa is projected to experience many more such dangers in the foreseeable future.
While Iowans and Americans of all political persuasions have made it clear that we want climate action, elected leaders at both the state and national level show they’re unwilling to present a plan to protect us from the devastating effects of climate change. In fact, our elected officials seem to revel in dangerous indifference. They reduce funds available to protect, clean up, or restore waterways. They oppose efforts to improve access to clean energy or improve critical infrastructure.
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Time is short. We need to take bold action. Iowa’s powerful wind energy is a good start. But so much more can and needs to be done. To reduce emissions, our legislators must support and strengthen distributed solar energy sources, not stifle them. To reduce flooding, communities require leadership and funds to restore the resilience of our waterways. Knowing more floods are coming means critical infrastructure must be strengthened, and wherever feasible, vulnerable communities must be moved from harm’s way.
Legislators at all levels must take off their blinders and recognize that all lives depend on a healthy environment. Elected leaders are in office to protect the public. It’s time they listen to the will of the people they represent and meet the challenge of addressing climate change. Our lives, our economy and our future depend on it.
• Maureen McCue is an adjunct clinical assistant professor in The University of Iowa Colleges of Public Health and Liberal Arts and Sciences. McCue has been coordinator of the Iowa chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility for 16 years.