WSW: Climate Change Is Bad For Our Health

Oct 10, 2017

The impacts of climate change differ by region
Credit The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health

We often hear about what climate change is doing to birds and trees, but you might wonder - how does it affect me? For one thing, it’s making us sick. 


David Karowe is a professor of biological sciences at Western Michigan University and researches the effects of climate change. He says climate change causes more deaths, makes it hard to breathe, and might even make us fat.

"Each year climate change causes about 300,000 deaths that might not otherwise have happened. Most of them are not in our country. Most of them are in Africa and parts of Asia," says Karowe.

He says a lot of that is due to stronger hurricanes caused by climate change and the flooding that comes with it. But Karowe says Michiganders have other things to worry about like excessive heat. 

Heat-Related Deaths

One effect of climate change that we're already seeing is more unbearably hot days. When we have a heat wave, Karowe says it takes a few days for excessive heat to cause deaths. So the longer a heat wave lasts, the more harmful it is to human health. 

"So if a heat wave average duration changes from five days to eight days it may triple the mortality associated with it," says Karowe.

Karowe says if we continue to slowly move away from fossil fuels, climate scientists have predicted that Chicago would have about three heat waves per summer - much like the one that struck the city in 1995, killing about 750 people.

Detroit would have about two heat waves per summer. He says Kalamazoo would be somewhere in between those two cities.

"For both cities, historically, a heat wave that intense occurred about once a century," says Karowe.

Karowe says if we instead were more active about switching to alternative energy sources, we could probably save 1,600 lives per year in Detroit and 1,900 lives in Chicago.

More Snow, Then Rain Causing Water Contamination

Over the next 30 or 40 years, Karowe says we're likely to have more lake effect snow. That's because there's less ice covering the lakes, allowing more water to turn into precipitation. He says, after those 30 or 40 years, that snow will probably turn to rain.

That rain will likely lead to sewer overflows and wash fertilizer from farms into our waterways, says Karowe. He says that can cause E.coli outbreaks and more closed beaches along the Great Lakes. 

Heart Attacks and Asthma

Karowe says there are tiny particles called PM2.5 (or particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns) that we can inhale and get into our bloodstream. They can cause heart and lung problems - like heart attacks and asthma. 

So where do these particles come from? Coal fired power plants, says Karowe. In fact, he says Michigan's coal plants already cause about 700 deaths per year and numerous non-lethal heart attacks. 

Karowe says the Monroe Power Plant alone causes about 280 deaths annually. He says the EPA also attributes 140 deaths per year to the J.H. Campbell Plant in West Olive - which is downwind from Kalamazoo and other Southwest Michigan towns in our area. 

Then there's ground-level ozone, which also causes respiratory problems. Though ozone protects us from the sun's rays when it's high up in the air, Karowe says it's bad when it reaches the ground. 

"Ground-level ozone, when we breathe it, is so reactive that it essentially burns our lungs," he says.

Coal fired power plants and the tail pipes of cars act as catalysts to bring ozone down to ground-level, says Karowe. He says if nothing changes, we will go from 50 ozone deaths per year to about 300 deaths per year in the United States. 

Tick and Mosquito-Borne Diseases

The tick that spreads Lyme disease is moving farther north as the Earth warms. Karowe says these ticks also reproduce faster in warm weather, so populations will grow. WMUK actually did a report on this two years ago.

Karowe says the mosquito that transmits dengue fever has also moved north into Texas. Though he says they likely won't arrive in Michigan by the end of this century.

Threat of Nuclear War

Karowe says the biggest threat climate change poses to Michigan citizens - and everyone else in the U.S. - is that it increases the likelihood of serious conflict. He says that's because countries may be fighting over vital resources like food and water. 

Take India and Pakistan, for example. Karowe says 85 percent of the water for India and Pakistan's agriculture comes off of the Himalayan glaciers and flows down the Indus River. The Indus River passes through northern India before it gets to Pakistan. Karowe says as the glaciers shrink there will be less water in the Indus.

"At some point very likely will be small enough volume of water that India needs it all for themselves. And if India says, 'I'm sorry, Pakistan, we cannot let any water flow through to you.' Pakistan cannot exist," he says.

Karowe says India and Pakistan both have nuclear weapons - and they could choose to use them to defend their country's water resources.

Meanwhile, the U.S. could have an internal struggle over how to irrigate our crops. Karowe says climate change could cause us to lose a substantial portion of our agriculture to drought. So the nation's largest freshwater resource - the Great Lakes - may have to be used for irrigation. 

"I don't know about you but I think of [the Great Lakes] as Michigan's, Wisconsin's, and the states that border on the Great Lakes - I feel like that's sort of our water," says Karowe. "But there will in the not too distant future, I'm sure, be a discussion about whether that is a states' resource or a national resource."

Possible Weight Gain

Surprisingly, some crops are likely to grow larger with more carbon dioxide in the air, says Karowe. But he says, these bigger plants have more calories but have a lot less protein. So they're less valuable to use nutritionally. 

Karowe says in his research he grows plants under elevated carbon dioxide and then feeds those plants to insects. 

"A very clear pattern is that they eat about 50 percent more," says Karowe. 

He says amino acids are what cause us to feel full and we get amino acids from protein. If a caterpillar is eating a plant with less protein, Karowe says it will probably need to eat more of a plant to feel full. 

Mental Health

All of this talk about climate change might be throwing you into a state of depression. Karowe says that's not uncommon. After all, climate change is scary. But Karowe says the best way to beat the climate blues is to try to do something about the problem. 

What Can We Do?

Karowe has these tips on how to insure a greener future:

  1. Vote for politicians that make climate change a priority - especially if you're a young voter. Karowe says people under 30 know the most about climate change and vote the least. 
  2. Meet, call, or write your representative and let them know where you stand on environmental policies.
  3. Don't eat beef. Karowe says beef is a very carbon-intensive meat. Going vegetarian has even less of an impact on the environment. 
  4. Weatherize your home so that you're using less energy to heat and cool your house.
  5. Buy a more fuel efficient car.
  6. Buy Energy Star appliances.
  7. Support green electricity through renewable energy certificates
  8. Switch to LED bulbs and turn off lights when you're not in the room

You can find more tips and resources through the Kalamazoo Climate Change Coalition.