The year 2017 was a year of record-breaking climate events. The world saw some of the highest average surface temperatures ever recorded. Extreme weather events in the U.S. included massive suffering and caused $306 billion in damage.
Unusual events occurred: Sharks froze in the Atlantic; iguanas “shut down” and fell from trees during a cold snap in Florida; San Francisco experienced 106 degrees on Sept. 1, when the average high at that time is usually about 70 degrees; California experienced its largest ever wildfire, which came on the heels of a devastating wildfire in Northern California. Then came, in rapid succession, monstrous hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, which caused massive destruction.
In East Africa, devastating drought was a humanitarian crisis. Australia broke many heat and rainfall records and witnessed its warmest winter on record.
The extent and rate of Arctic Sea ice decline was unprecedented in the past 1,500 years. The year 2017 experienced the highest level of carbon pollution on record. Scientists found that climate change has threatened almost half of all mammals and one in four bird species in at least some part of their range.
Did climate change play a role? There is consensus among scientists that certainly the intensity of these events was caused by climate change. There is also mostly agreement that human activity played a role. These events should be a wake-up call.
The UN is undertaking a major new initiative to combat environmental health risks that claim an estimated 13 million lives a year. Included are specific actions to combat air pollution, climate change and anti-microbial resistance. Our health is directly related to the health of the environment we live in. Climate change affects the Earth’s biodiversity and ecosystems. Importantly, it also affects global health.
A seemingly infinite variety of living organisms, genetic diversity and ecosystems worldwide have produced the plenty that sustains human life, the water and soil that that provide the food we eat and air we breathe. Now, life on Earth faces an unprecedented challenge from climate change. Among many hazards are pollution, loss of habitat and deforestation. Current ecological trends contribute to the ongoing rate of species extinction. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson warns that if current ecological trends continue, half of the Earth’s species could be extinct by 2100.
The loss of genetic diversity within species threatens the interdependent ecosystems and complex web of life of which we are part and which is essential to our well-being. Plant and animal species could see dramatic losses as habitats become unsuitable. The collapse of ecosystems would have major impacts on agriculture, air quality and clean water access.
This should be a wake-up call.
According to a recent report in Lancet, the medical journal, climate is already a public health crisis. Heat waves, disease-carrying insects and prolonged allergies are some of the early symptoms. Heat waves over the past two decades were hotter and lasted longer. Warmer temperatures spread insects, and disease-carrying insects that thrive in warmer temperatures are increasing.
Two species of mosquito that carry dengue, a tropical virus that causes high fever, headaches, vomiting and skin rashes, increased their ability to spread globally. Lyme disease cases in the U.S. have tripled in the past two decades to roughly 300,000 Americans per year, as warmer winters expand the area where ticks can survive. Lancet reports that pollution of the air, water and soil is responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths. Climate change and pollution are related–most air pollution is produced by the same sources that emit carbon dioxide. The same report also presents some hopeful statistics. In places where renewables replaced fossil fuels, particularly coal, mortality decreased.
This should be a wake-up call.
China is one country where the experience of climate change has altered people’s attitudes. The terrible smog that arrives predictably each winter has made air pollution a major concern and people have demanded governmental action. The Chinese government has responded and has announced plans to make major cuts in carbon emission levels. Hopefully, they will follow through. Truly, a rare case of listening to a wake-up call.
Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld, an IHEU representative to the UN, and Dr. Reba Goodman are members of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.