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As the climate changes, risks to human health will accelerate, White House warns

Smoke billows from stacks of a coal-fired power plant in China’s Shanxi province. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

More deaths from extreme heat. Longer allergy seasons. Increasingly polluted air and water. Diseases transmitted by mosquitoes and ticks spreading farther and faster. Those are among the health risks that could be exacerbated by global warming coming decades, the Obama administration warned in a new report Monday.

The study, more than 300 pages long and several years in the making, focuses on what the White House has described as one of the gravest threats to the nation: major health problems associated with climate change. It details direct effects, such as the potential for worsening air quality to trigger thousands more premature deaths from respiratory problems or an uptick in annual deaths from crushing heat waves. But researchers said other, less obvious effects also could take a toll on human health — from mental health problems that can result from extreme weather events such as hurricanes and floods to the fact that rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can lower the nutritional value of some crops.

While every American could be affected, administration officials said Monday, the brunt of the harm is most likely to fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women, children, the poor, the elderly, minorities, immigrants and people with disabilities.

Climate change poses a severe risk to global health, says new report

“This isn’t just about glaciers and polar bears. It’s about the health of our family and our kids,” Gina McCarthy, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said Monday. “To protect ourselves and future generations, we need to understand the health impacts of climate change that are already happening, and those that we expect to see down the road.”

The report, which involved scores of researchers and the work of eight federal agencies, included findings largely in line with a growing body of research into the risks to human health should countries continue to emit massive levels of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Last year, for instance, a major report in the Lancet medical journal, which relied on dozens of scientists from China and Europe, found that climate change “threatens to undermine the last half century of gains in development and global health” if left unchecked.

The Obama administration study found that as the world warms, exploding populations and greater urbanization could increase the number of people exposed to extreme heat, which already kills thousands of Americans each year. For instance, researchers projected that a warmer future could result in “thousands to tens of thousands of additional premature deaths per year across the United States by the end of this century” from heat-related illnesses, more than off-setting any reduction of cold-related deaths.

“The changes are happening right now,” said U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. He said that with the data in the new report, “we see a more clear picture of the extent to which climate change is going to impact health, and it’s not a pretty picture. . . . As far as history is concerned, this is a new type of threat that we’re facing. . . . The solution is not going to be simple, but it is possible.”

Obama administration officials said the report significantly updates the science behind the human health effects of climate change, allowing researchers to predict with more confidence the kinds of problems that might arise in the absence of drastic cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions. At the same time, they acknowledged that the projections about the effect of climate change on health could change significantly if countries succeed — or fail — to rein in those emissions.

President Obama has detailed aggressive measures to cut back on the nation’s carbon emissions, and countries around the world agreed last winter in Paris to collectively reduce such pollution in coming years. But administration officials on Monday agreed that even more measures will be necessary to reduce human health risks.

“The point that this study underscores is there needs to be more than ‘some’ significant global action,” said John P. Holdren, Obama’s top science adviser. “We need to ramp up ambition over time to get deeper reductions if we’re to avoid the worst of the health care impacts that are described in this report.”

Monday’s report is the latest effort by the Obama administration to put a human face on climate change, which to some can seem like an abstract concept. It comes roughly a year after Obama spoke publicly about the White House’s effort to focus on the health risks of a changing Earth.

“There are a whole host of public health impacts that are going to hit home,” Obama said in remarks at Howard University last April, citing the domino effect that changes in climate could have on public health. “So we’ve got to do better in protecting vulnerable Americans. Ultimately, though, all of our families are going to be vulnerable. You can’t cordon yourself off from air or from climate.”

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