U.S. Not Immune to Climate Change Health Risks

If you think the United States is somehow immune to the effects of climate change, think again. Climate change will have very real consequences for our public health, and it’s not just scientists forecasting the impacts anymore – now, insurance companies and national security experts have weighed in.

Two recent graphic maps really caught my attention: both show that the U.S. is just below the top-tier of climate and disaster risk-impacted nations – and both were put together by reinsurance companies. These are international corporations that guarantee the obligations of insurance companies and are very serious enterprises. That they would estimate the world’s vulnerability to climate change-related disasters shows that the risk from warming is a spreading problem.

These natural disasters – like flooding, hurricanes, and other extreme weather events – have the potential to devastate health in our communities. Besides the initial mortality rates, people in impacted U.S. regions could suffer from waterborne illnesses and see an increase in infectious diseases. One insurance group determined that more natural catastrophes occurred on the American continent (365 events) in 2010 than in Asia (310 events).

The estimations are just more examples of how mainstream folks have come out vocally on the need to adapt to and prepare for climate change. The national security community (that’s right, the Pentagon and Department of Defense gang) also called for action, because they recognize how infectious disease outbreaks, sea level rise, flooding, storms, drought and famine – all of which they concur will be worsened by climate change – are what destabilizes nations and leads to international conflict. 

In 2007, a CNA report described climate change as a “threat multiplier” and noted that it “presents significant national security challenges for the United States.” One of those challenges is dengue fever.

NRDC released a report, called Fever Pitch, on dengue fever – virus that has been a global scourge for centuries but is now spreading through the Western Hemisphere. Dengue fever cases diagnosed in Florida in 2009 were the first locally transmitted infections there in more than 40 years, but other such cases have been reported in the Texas-Mexico border region for years.

Fever Pitch found that mosquitoes capable of transmitting dengue are now in at least 28 states (The Washington Post recently wrote that our report said dengue “might spread” into those states). If you couple that with the fact that international travelers for years have entered most of the 50 states with infections acquired in tropical and subtropical destinations where dengue is prevalent – it’s no wonder that disease transmission risks for local residents are rising.

All this has a huge price tag: a brand-new report estimates that the total cost of dengue illness in the Americas could be as high as $2.1 billion per year. 

It’s my duty as a health scientist to help people reduce their exposure to harm from public health threats, yet climate change – called “the biggest global threat of the 21st century” by one of the world’s premier medical journals – presents a daunting array of risks that too few Americans know about.

Let’s shine a light on this issue and look at what’s being done across the U.S. to prepare for life under a changing climate, applaud the champions who are already taking action to protect the nation’s health, and defend our right to a climate-secure, healthier future.