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EPA: Global Warming Is Endangering Americans

by Patriot Daily
Published on Reuters

EPA administrator Stephen Johnson informed the Bush Administration last December that there is "compelling and robust" evidence that our recent temperature increases are caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions which endanger the American people:

WASHINGTON — - The head of the Environmental Protection Agency told the Bush administration in December that high levels of man-made heat-trapping gases are causing global warming and endanger the American people, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said Thursday after she reviewed the EPA finding, which has not been made public.

The White House declined to open the email with the warning contained in a 38-page document because:

The document is important because the Supreme Court ruled last year that if the EPA administrator finds greenhouse gases endanger the public, then the government must regulate them — a move the administration opposes.
Last week, the EPA issued a 283-page report which details how global warming endangers Americans. The EPA Inspector General issued another report that the Bush Administration's voluntary programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions "have limited potential."

The EPA report on global warming impacts explains how climate change endangers us all:

1. Temperature: Heat waves will increase while cold days and nights will become less frequent. The EPA reports a predicted increase in temperature-related morbidity and mortality, which will affect everyone. During 1979-2002, 4,780 people died from heatwaves, although the report acknowledges that the figures are underestimated because the death certificate may not always list heat as the cause of death. Moreover, heat waves may cause death by exacerbating chronic health conditions, such as cardiovascular, renal, respiratory diseases, diabetes, and nervous system disorders.

While everyone will be affected by temperature extremes, certain subpopulations face an added risk: Children, older adults, impoverished populations, people with chronic medical conditions or compromised immune systems, people with mobility and cognitive constraints, outdoor workers, city dwellers, the less educated, people without access to air conditioning and recent migrants and immigrants.

One factor in heat-related mortality is age. The number of Americans over age 65 is projected to reach 13% by 2010 and 20% by 2030 or over 50 million people. The EPA reports that older Americans are more "vulnerable" to higher temperatures, which means that "heat-related mortality could increase."

City dwellers will be impacted by the urban heat island effect which will increase city temperatures by 2-10 degrees more than suburban and rural areas due to "absorption of heat by dark paved surfaces and buildings, lack of vegetation and trees, heat emitted from buildings, vehicles, and air conditioners, and reduced air flow around buildings."

The plan to reduce heat-mortalities includes "heatwave early warning systems, urban design to reduce heat loads, and enhanced services during heatwaves."

2. Extreme Climate Events: Our weather will include extreme climate events, including hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, blizzards, windstorms, droughts, wildfires, heat waves, and heavy downpours. Climate change may increase hurricane wind speeds, rainfall intensity and storm surge levels while sea levels will rise, causing coastal and riverine floods.

The gravity of this report is illustrated by the EPA's acknowledgment of the role of climate change in increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes, indicating that, while further studies can be productive, it is time to stop debating causation and move toward taking action.

The EPA states that "theoretically, climate change could increase the frequency and severity of hurricanes by warming tropical seas where hurricanes first emerge and gain most of their energy," noting that "[c]ontroversy over whether hurricane intensity increased over recent decades stem less from the conceptual arguments than from the limitations of available hurricane incidence data." However, "[e]vidence suggests that the intensity of Atlantic hurricanes and tropical storms has increased over the past few decades" and "there is evidence for a human contribution to increased sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic and there is a strong correlation to Atlantic tropical storm frequency, duration, and intensity. However, a confident assessment will require further studies." It has also been concluded that the "wind speeds and core rainfall rates will increase" for North Atlantic hurricanes. In addition, storm surge will increase due to "projected sea level rise."

The report acknowledges the role of climate in the incidence and severity of wildfires in the Western US.

Between 1987-2003 and 1970-1986, there was a nearly fourfold increase in the incidence of large Western wildfires (i.e., fires that burned at least 400 hectares) ... . The key driver of this increase was an average increase in springtime temperature of 0.87°C that affected spring snowmelt, subsequent potential for evapotranspiration, loss of soil moisture, and drying of fuels ... .

Studies have also projected "increasingly severe wildfires, measured both in terms of energy released and the number of fires that avoid initial containment" in areas that will be "increasingly dry."

In terms of extreme precipitation and flooding, the report states that there are "theoretical arguments" for increased precipitation and flooding "based on the principles of the hydrological cycle where increasing average temperature will intensify evaporation and subsequently increase precipitation." The theory appears to be valid as the "evidence suggests that the number of extreme precipitation events in the United States has increased."

The deaths caused by even one extreme climate event category, such as hurricanes, can be high:

From 1940 through 2005 roughly 4,300 lives were lost in the United States to hurricanes. The impact of the 2005 hurricane season is especially notable as it doubled the estimate of the average number of lives lost to hurricanes in the United States over the previous 65 years.

During this same time period, floods killed 7,000 people.

3. Human Settlements: Where you live will determine which climate change impacts may affect your life and health. Certain locations are more vulnerable, such as Alaska due to increased permafrost melt, coastal zones due to increased flooding from coastal surges or riverine flooding and rising seas, and arid states that already suffer from water droughts and water scarcity. Low-lying coastal regions face hurricanes, flooding and sea level rises that threaten water supplies while the Gulf Coast region faces more intense storms, greater rises in sea levels, coastal erosion and damage to freshwater resources. The Southwest and Great Lakes areas face increased strains on water resources while interior continental zones of the US will face more intense heat waves and densely populated urban areas face the heat island effect.

Climate change impacts on human settlements varies regionally but several factors will affect where we live as populations migrate to avoid global warming impacts.

a), health impacts from climate change may be higher in certain locales. For example, higher temperatures in cities are related to higher ozone levels which cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems. b), the ability of regions to sustain populations based upon changed precipitation patterns that decrease or eliminate water availability. Potable water supplies will decrease due to reductions in snowmelt, river flows, groundwater levels and increased saltwater intrusion which impairs the quality of fresh water supplies. Our increased population will increase the demand for water supplies notwithstanding changed precipitation patterns across the country. c), the age and condition of infrastructure. Severe weather events will "affect infrastructure such as sanitation, transportation, supply lines for food and energy, and communication." Moreover, our aging infrastructure, such as bridges, will be subject to collapses. The impact can be enhanced due to interconnected infrastructures, which are already old and stressed from increasing demands. d), global warming has and will increase energy requirements, such as the demand for air conditioning which may impact reliability due to overloaded systems. e), there will be regional, national and international economic impacts as well as localized economic impacts related to areas whose economy is dependent upon agriculture, forestry, water resources or tourism, which will all be affected by global warming. f), the social and political structures will be stressed by increasing budget requirements for public services. And, f), settlements in certain regions will be exposed to a number of climate change impacts, such as rising sea levels, increased frequency and severity of storm events.

As climate events increase, settlement patterns will be affected by regional risks and the availability of insurance as companies either withdraw private insurance coverage or impose prohibitive costs, thus pushing migration to another locale. Global warming will cause changes in comparative living costs, risks and amenities that may reduce the desire to live in certain areas, causing more migration. For example, the increased costs associated with buying basic services such as water may cause moving to a wetter region. Another example, which the report says is "highly uncertain," is a "gradual migration of the "Sun Belt" northward, as retirees and businesses attracted by environmental amenities find that regions less exposed to very high temperatures and seasonal major storms are more attractive as places to locate."

Not all the news is bad. The EPA reported some beneficial effects of climate change on settlements. Warmer temperatures in winter can reduce utility heating costs as well as snow removal costs. As our spring and summer seasons expand, there will be a longer growing season for crops, flower gardens and more time for summer recreation. Global warming may also improve "competitiveness":

"While some settlements may turn out to be "losers" due to climate change impacts, others may be "winners," as changes in temperature or precipitation result in added economic opportunities ..., at least if climate change is not severe."

One table in the EPA report sets out some of the global warming impacts regionally, which provides a handy reference to make settlement migration decisions in terms of what impacts you are more willing to live with and which impacts you wish to avoid:

4. Health (Injuries, Illness and Death) : The EPA acknowledged that "heat-related morbidity and mortality will increase over the coming decades." However, the existing economic disparities of our health care system will cause a disproportionate burden of climate impacts on the poor, elderly, disabled and uninsured.

There are a number of direct health risks associated with climate change as extreme climate events (floods, droughts, windstorms, fires and heatwaves) sicken, injure or kill Americans. Higher temperatures can help cause and exacerbate cardiovascular and pulmonary illnesses. Climate change can produce stagnant air masses that degrade air quality.

There are also indirect climate change impacts on our health caused by the alteration or disruption of natural systems causing an increase in the spread of water and foodborne pathogens to areas where they had not existed before or an exacerbation of a previously limited existence.

Transmission of infectious diseases may occur by insects or rodents. Increasing temperatures may spread the range of some illnesses north into the US, such as dengue virus, which had a recent epidemic in southern Texas and northern Mexico. "[S]tudies provide evidence that climate affects the abundance and distributions of vectors that may carry West Nile virus, Western Equine encephalitis, Eastern Equine encephalitis, Bluetongue virus, and Lyme disease."

Presently, waterborne and foodborne diseases cause "significant morbidity in the United States." However, studies indicate that these diseases are "highly unreported" and that the incidence is actually in the millions each year, resulting in thousands of deaths.

Using a combination of underreporting estimates, passive and active surveillance data, and hospital discharge data, Mead et al. (1999) estimated that over 210 million cases of gastroenteritis occur annually in the United States, including over 900,000 hospitalizations and over 6,000 deaths. More recently, Herikstad et al. (2002) estimated as many as 375 million episodes of diarrhea occur annually in the United States, based on a self-reporting study. These numbers far exceed previous estimates. Of the total estimated annual cases, just over 39 million can be attributed to a specific pathogen and approximately 14 million are transmitted by food (Mead et al., 1999).

Then there are diseases reemerging in the US. Leptospirosis has not been a reportable disease since 1995, but is now reviving in the US. Given that "increased disease rates are linked to warm temperatures, epidemiological evidence suggest that climate change may increase the number of cases." The CDC states that if this disease is "not treated, the patient could develop kidney damage, meningitis (inflammation of the membrane around the brain and spinal cord), liver failure, and respiratory distress. In rare cases death occurs."

The US is also now experiencing climate related diseases that were never here before due to increasing temperatures which have expanded the geographic area for the disease. In fact, during 2002-2004, studies showed an increase in the geographic range and diversity of some pathogens in northern Atlantic waters of the US "coincident with warm water." For example, in 2004, the range of one pathogen expanded for the first time to Alaskan oysters because the Alaskan waters were no longer a cold inhospitable environment. Another now rare disease is caused by the Naegleria fowleri or "brain-eating amoeba," which is associated with warm water, and thus, its range may increase as global warming heats up our waters. The report states that "infections are almost always fatal."

In addition to warmer waters, some waterborne disease outbreaks associated with both surface and groundwater drinking water supplies are triggered by precipitation levels. Valley Fever is "an infectious disease caused by inhalation of the spores of a soil-inhabiting fungus that thrives during wet periods following droughts" and thus "climate change could affect its incidence and geographic range."

There are also indirect health impacts from extreme climate events, such as post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression resulting from the extreme climate event and the aftermath of recovery:

During the recovery period, mental health problems can arise from the problems associated with geographic displacement, damage to the home or loss of familiar possessions, and stress involved with the process of repairing. The full impact often is not appreciated until after people's homes have been put back in order. For instance, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, mental health services in New Orleans were challenged by an increased incidence of serious mental illness, including anxiety, major depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Shortly after Katrina, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention poll found that nearly half of all survey respondents indicated a need for mental health care, yet less than 2% were receiving professional attention... .

Another factor in morbidity and mortality is changes in our air quality. Presently, millions of Americans live in areas that do not satisfy the health-based National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for ozone and fine particulate matter (PM2.5). The EPA reports that "levels of these two pollutants have the potential to be influenced by climate change in a variety of ways." Ozone formation increases with more sunlight and higher temperatures. Studies have "firmly established" that breathing ozone causes decreases in lung function, premature mortality and may cause asthma. Studies have also shown that PM2.5 is associated with a "variety of adverse health outcomes including respiratory symptoms such as coughing and difficulty breathing, decreased lung function, aggravated asthma, development of chronic bronchitis, heart attack, and arrhythmias. Associations have also been reported for increased school absences, hospital admissions, emergency room visits, and premature mortality."

Increasing temperatures will increase air quality mortality rates, as demonstrated by one study which compared the health impacts of pre-industrial versus present day atmospheric concentrations of CO2:

The results suggest that increasing concentrations of CO2 increased tropospheric ozone and PM2.5, which increased mortality by about 1.1% per degree temperature increase over the baseline rate; Jacobson estimated that about 40% of the increase was due to ozone and the rest to particulate matter.

Another climate change factor that will increase air pollution in the Midwest is the "decreases between 2000 and 2052 in the frequency of Canadian frontal passages that clear away stagnating air pollution episodes."

5. Ecosystems: The EPA report acknowledges that ecosystems provide functions or services which "sustain and fulfill human life." Ecosystems provide functions, including food, fiber, regulation of air and water quality, photosynthesis, recreation, and aesthetic and spiritual values. Impacts on ecosystems then create additional impacts for people:

For example, a variety of ecosystem changes may be linked to changes in human health, from changes that encourage the expansion of the range of vector-borne diseases ... to the frequency and impact of floods and fires on human populations, due to changes in protection afforded by ecosystems.

Human activity --- such as "habitat destruction, releases of pollutants, over-harvesting of plants, fish and wildlife, and the introduction of invasive species into fragile systems" --- has degraded 15 of the 24 vital ecosystem services. Climate change is another human activity which threatens adverse impacts to biodiversity.

Climate change will cause the "shifting, breakup and loss of ecological communities." Some species will need to relocate their geographical range poleward or to higher elevations in search of cooler temperatures. Climate change has already caused northward migration of some species, such as the red fox in the Canadian arctic and a number of bird species. Even if range shifts are an option, the species face obstacles in the form of geology (such as plants confined to specific soil types), or human activities (such as the presence of cities, agricultural land etc) that block migrating northward. Other species that are restricted to alpine tundra habitats or coastal habitats will not have the choice of relocation. And, not all species will adapt to the increased temperatures and other effects of climate change, leading to "extinctions of plants and animals and reduced biodiversity." The report acknowledges the likely result of acceleration of current extinction rates. In fact, some species are "already undergoing local subpopulation extinctions due to climate change."

Some species lose populations due to seasonal timing changes caused by global warming that affect breeding or hibernation seasons:

Such effects have already been observed in Europe where forest-breeding birds have been unable to advance their breeding seasons sufficiently to keep up with the earlier emergence of the arboreal caterpillars with which they feed their young. This has resulted in declining productivity and population reductions in at least one species.

Global warming also causes "changes in ecosystem processes, such as nutrient cycling, decomposition, carbon flow" so that areas that functioned as CO2 absorbers now are emitters:

Increasing temperatures over the past few decades on the North Slope of Alaska have resulted in a summer breakdown of the permanently frozen soil of the Alaskan Tundra and increased activity by soil bacteria that decompose plant material. This has accelerated the rate at which CO2 (a breakdown product of the decomposition of the vegetation and also a greenhouse gas) is released to the atmosphere—changing the Tundra from a net sink (absorber) to a net emitter of CO2.

6. Resolutions: Mitigation and/or Adaptation: The report concludes that there are three options for US settlements and population. One, the US can take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by employing climate change mitigation strategies and "showing leadership in encouraging others to support such actions." Two, the US can respond by adapting to climate change impacts, such as "hardening" coastal structures to sustain sea-level rises or forming response strategies, such as emergency preparedness for the adverse impacts of global warming. A third response is some combination of mitigation and adaptation.

The report acknowledges that it is politically difficult to allocate "massive amounts of funding or management attention to current climate change actions" because the public awareness of impacts is still fairly low, future impacts are uncertain and the implications are long term. The report thus suggests a "co-benefits" approach where decisionmakers can advocate changes needed to existing infrastructure or systems based on non-climate change reasons but the change will also have the benefit of reducing vulnerabilities from climate change impacts:

What generally makes more sense is to consider ways that actions which reduce vulnerabilities to climate change impacts (or increase prospects for realizing benefits from climate change impacts) are also desirable for other reasons as well: often referred to as "co-benefits." Examples include actions that reduce vulnerabilities to current climate variability regardless of long-term climate change, actions that add resilience to water supply and other urban infrastructures that are already stressed, and actions that make metropolitan areas more attractive for their citizens in terms of their overall quality of life.

The report cited examples of current climate change adaptation strategies, many triggered by grassroots activities:

Bottom-up grassroots activities currently under way in the United States are considerable, and that number appears to be growing. For example, Boston has built a new wastewater treatment plant at least one-half meter higher than currently necessary to cope with sea level rise, and in a coastal flood protection plan for a site north of Boston the U.S. Corps of Engineers incorporated sea-level rise into their analysis. California is considering climate change adaptation strategies as a part of its more comprehensive attention to climate change policies. And, Alaska is already pursuing ways to adapt to permafrost melting and other climate change effects.

...While no U.S. communities have developed comprehensive programs to ameliorate the effects of heat islands, some localities are recognizing the need to address these effects. In Chicago, for example, several municipal buildings have been designed to accommodate "green" rooftops. Atlanta has had a Cool Communities "grass roots" effort to educate local and state officials and developers on strategies that can be used to mitigate the UHI. This Cool Communities effort was instrumental in getting the State of Georgia to adopt the first commercial building code in the country emphasizing the benefits of cool roofing technology.

We have a long way to go, but at least the EPA is now disclosing how our lives our endangered by global warming.

Guest contributor Patriot Daily is an environmental lawyer in California who blogs regularly at Daily Kos on environmental, water, political and human rights issues.