Search Results for: Climate

Hope: the Climate Message in Unexpected Places

By Melissa McCullough

I’ve been in the environmental protection business for a long time, and I’ve watched great progress, however slowly. Cleaner air and water. Action on the ozone hole. Acid Rain. International attention to persistent bioaccumulators.

But we all know how much is left to do. Hope is a driving force for those of us in this business, this cause, but it is sometimes maddeningly elusive. On no topic is this as true as for climate action. Sadly, humans, are better wired to pay attention to something with teeth moving at you at high speed. And as Upton Sinclair wisely said, “It is hard to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

So I was delighted recently to see an important message about climate change show up in something as unexpected as Vogue magazine.

Photograph of Mary Lubber

Photo Credit: Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin. To read Vogue’s 13 Formidable Women on the Front Line of Climate Change, click on “Climate Warriors” in the paragraph to the left of the image.

Being a comfortable-shoes type of person, I admit that my usual response to Vogue is “People actually WEAR this stuff?” But a recent newsletter from Ceres1, who’s executive director, Mindy Lubber was artfully caught (at right) by Vogue’s camera, brought this odd juxtaposition of Fashion Art and Climate Action to my attention.

The magazine presents the article “Climate Warriors,” which introduces readers to 13 women working to address the challenges of climate change. Each “climate warrior” is profiled through personal quotes highlighting their work and dedication to sustaining the planet.

I am excited about this article. First, it grabs an unexpected audience with iconic black and white portraits and the headline that there are “Formidable Women on the Front Line.” We need those non-traditional audiences; the proverbial “choir” can’t tackle climate change without broader action and support. And women can be powerful messengers when emotionally motivated. Second, the storytelling is both brief and compelling. These women’s stories are about their personal reactions, actions and impacts around climate—change from a young poet-activist from the disappearing Marshall Islands, to the co-chair of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change living with devastating droughts in Chad, to the hip-looking Rachel Kyte, vice president of the World Bank Group and special envoy for climate change. These 13 stories are powerful. They are diverse in viewpoint and the women’s strategic direction. They talk about how climate impacts have exacerbated realities of their lives, like terrorism, poverty, and struggling families. And they are all stories of women with hope for the fight and the outcome.

I encourage you to read these stories. Drink in the hope.

About the Author: Melissa McCullough is a Transdisciplinary Scientist in EPA’s Sustainable and Healthy Communities research program. When challenged to describe her EPA career in six words she wrote: “Discovering sustainability, exploring applications everywhere possible.”

1. Ceres is a non-profit coalition of investors, companies and public interest groups advocating for sustainability leadership by business, to accelerate and expand the adoption of sustainability business practices.

Global Climate Action at COP-21

By EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy

This week, I’m proud to be in Paris, where the United States and countries around the world are working toward an ambitious global climate agreement at the 21st Conference of the Parties, also known as COP-21.

Since day one in office, President Obama has recognized that climate change is not just an environmental concern. It’s an urgent matter of public health, our economy, and our security.

And we were reminded by Pope Francis earlier this year that acting on climate isn’t just the smart thing to do, it’s our moral responsibility—for the sake of the world’s poor and vulnerable, and on behalf of our kids and grandkids.

That’s why the work going on here Paris—where hundreds of the world’s nations are coming together and collaborating on a path forward—is so important. The global community has never before been so close to consensus on this issue. A historic agreement is at our fingertips.

Today at the State Department’s U.S. Center at COP-21, I spoke about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) role in this international effort, and how EPA is delivering on President Obama’s climate agenda.

Over the past 7 years, The U.S. has taken a series of ambitious actions to cut the carbon pollution driving climate change, and demonstrate that the U.S. is fulfilling our responsibility to act. All told, the steps we’ve taken under President Obama’s leadership will help the United States reach our national goal of cutting carbon pollution 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Whether it’s the Department of Agriculture’s “Climate Smart Agriculture” initiative to cut carbon pollution by over 120 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent by 2025, or the several dozen utility-scale renewable energy projects that the Department of Interior has permitted on public lands, or NASA’s cutting-edge scientific efforts to monitor Earth-system changes. The list goes on and on.

A centerpiece of U.S. efforts is EPA’s Clean Power Plan, our historic rule to cut carbon pollution from the power sector, the largest source in the U.S. economy. Our plan puts the United States on track to slash carbon pollution 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. And the cuts to smog and soot that come along with these reductions will lead to major health benefits for kids and families.

And EPA is taking a host of additional steps to push our progress even further. We’re doubling the distance our nation’s cars go on a gallon of gas by 2025. We’ve taken four separate actions to curb methane emissions from the oil and gas sector. We’re acting on climate-damaging Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), domestically, internationally, and through voluntary programs with industry. We set standards for medium-and heavy-duty vehicles and are now going even further with a proposal that will reduce 1 billion tons of emissions.

I’m confident these actions will stand the test of time. Why? Because EPA has a 45-year legacy of finding lasting solutions to difficult environmental problems. In that time, we’ve cut air pollution by 70 percent while our nation’s economy has tripled.
In the U.S., we’re already seeing clean-energy innovations being rewarded. Today, the U.S. uses 3 times more wind power, and 20 times more solar than when President Obama first took office. Jobs in the solar industry are growing faster than in any other sector of our economy—good-paying jobs that grow opportunity in the communities that need it most. Our actions under President Obama’s leadership build on that trajectory.

And we’ve seen time and again the American people are ready to act on climate now. We heard from millions of people on our initial proposal for the Clean Power Plan. We heard from states, utility companies, environmental organizations, and communities across our country. What we heard is that people want to stop talking and start doing. In poll after poll, a majority of Americans say they want climate action. That’s how we know our actions will endure.

But we also know that no country can solve this challenge alone.

That’s why I’m so encouraged by the ambitious commitments we’re seeing from nations around the world. Heading into the COP-21, 180 countries, representing more than 90 percent of greenhouse gas emissions already submitted national plans to reduce their emissions. That’s big.

Here in Paris, our collective efforts are finally aligning. Now is our time.

For the sake of our children and grandchildren, it’s time to come together and do what’s necessary to protect our common home.

Stay up-to-date on U.S. Center events here, and follow my trip on Twitter @GinaEPA.

Alaskan Voices on Climate: Submit Your Video!

By Dianne Soderlund

In September, President Obama traveled to Alaska to see firsthand the impacts of climate change on the people who live and work here every day. During his time here, he met some of Alaska’s extraordinary people, many of whom are working every day to adapt to a changing climate. We know Alaskans are incredibly resilient and they are taking action to support their community and the environment for generations to come. Now we would like to provide an opportunity for Alaskans to share their story.

Today, we are launching Alaskan Voices on Climate and inviting Alaskans to send us their videos about the effects of a changing climate and about the work they are doing to ensure a healthy environment for future generations. How are these changes affecting your community? Have they made a difference in the way you live, work, or play? What lessons can your community share about becoming more resilient that would be helpful to other communities? We’d love to hear about all these things – and anything else you’d like to tell us about the changes you are experiencing and actions you are taking.

We will share our favorite stories by posting them on Facebook, Twitter, the EPA website, our Alaska InfoBox, and other Alaska channels. We hope you will share them with your friends and family. We anticipate lots of people inside and outside Alaska will be seeing the effects of a changing climate through your eyes. Please use this link to access the web page.  http://www2.epa.gov/ak/alaskan-voices-climate

  • Who can participate? Everybody! We’re looking for videos from Alaskans from all ages and walks of life.
  • How do you participate: It’s easy! Take a 30- to 90-second video about how our changing climate is affecting you and or your community. Include in your video a sign or segment with the hashtag #AlaskanVoices and mention where the video was filmed. Then send us your video via Twitter, Facebook, or email. You can find all the details on the EPA website.

We prepared a short video about Alaskan Voices on Climate. Please pass it along! The more videos we get, the better people everywhere will understand the impacts of climate change on Alaska and what Alaskan communities are doing to adapt or become more resilient.

If you have any questions or concerns, please email us at epa-seattle@epa.gov. We look forward to hearing from you, and we can’t wait to see what you submit!

About the author: Dianne Soderlund is Director of the EPA Region 10 Alaska Operations Office.

Coming to the Table: The Importance of a Multi-Stakeholder Dialogue on Climate Justice

A diverse range of federal and local stakeholders engage in discussions about the health effects of climate change on vulnerable populations. Photo: HHS
A diverse range of federal and local stakeholders engage in discussions about the health effects of climate change on vulnerable populations.
Photo: HHS

By Timothy Fields, Jr.

About the author: Timothy Fields, Jr. is Senior Vice President of MDB, Inc., a public health and environmental management consulting firm in Washington, D.C. Previously, Tim served as EPA Assistant Administrator in charge of environmental cleanup, waste management, and emergency response (1997-2001).

Climate change is one of the major public health challenges of our time.  Certain individuals and communities are especially vulnerable, including children, the elderly, the sick, low-income residents, and people of color.  As the conversation about climate change has grown, a new emphasis on climate justice has emerged, focusing on the health impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities.  Climate justice has become a high priority focus of the environmental justice movement.

Recent calls for action to address the public health dangers of climate change have been joined by leaders such as President Barack Obama, Pope Francis, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, and U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy.  They and many other leaders agree that climate change is impacting communities across the country and around the globe, particularly those communities already disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards and social conditions.

This June, more than 100 people from a variety of government agencies, community organizations, academic institutions, and businesses came together in North Carolina to discuss the health effects of climate change as they relate to vulnerable populations.  Convened by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the 2015 HHS Climate Justice Conference encouraged stakeholders to share community challenges and priorities, as well as promising approaches and opportunities for collaboration for responding to emerging health effects.

Although the conference focused on the strategic elements described in the 2012 HHS Environmental Justice Strategy and Implementation Plan, the dialogue reflected the larger conversation around climate justice.  Federal staff highlighted federal efforts to build climate resilience and promote climate justice.  Representatives of community groups not only offered on-the-ground examples of how climate change is impacting vulnerable communities, they pointed to how they are mobilizing to educate and empower communities to take action. Other stakeholders discussed tools and resources designed to help communities better understand the health impacts of climate change and become more resilient to these impacts.

Key themes highlighted during the conference include:

  • All stakeholders have a role in responding to the emerging health threats of climate change.
  • Community organizations and environmental justice representatives are mobilizing to educate and empower communities to take action.
  • Vulnerable communities need to be actively involved as programs, policies, and activities are developed and implemented to ensure climate justice.
  • Strategies are needed regarding how federal agencies could provide additional resources to increase the capacity of communities to address climate justice concerns.
  • Mechanisms should be developed to support workers who live and work in communities disproportionately affected by environmental hazards and are most vulnerable to climate change impacts.
  • Relationships with communities should be established as climate change research is conducted, employing mechanisms such as citizen science and community-engaged research to help empower communities to develop useful information.

Participants also discussed the need to achieve more equitable distribution of technical and financial assistance in the face of limited local resources for addressing climate change.  To achieve this, it is important that government agencies better coordinate and share information about climate resiliency services.

The 2015 HHS Climate Justice Conference is part of the ongoing dialogue about environmental justice and climate change, occurring 21 years after the signing of the Presidential Executive Order on Environmental Justice and two years after the issuance of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.  The dialogue among all stakeholders about climate justice and public health must continue.  I encourage you to continue to engage and take appropriate actions to address the health impacts of climate change.

Check out the 2015 HHS Climate Justice Conference Report and other conference materials, including a video from the meeting: https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/conference/hhs_climate_justice/

From the Lunch Counter to the Kitchen Table: Make Your Voice Heard on Climate Justice

 

 
By Makara Rumley

About the author: Makara Rumley, JD, is the Senior Advisor to the EPA Region 4 Regional Administrator. Her interest in the links between human rights and the environment had its roots in her work with Amnesty International, the National Geographic Society, and GreenLaw.

It’s amazing as I travel around the country, I see the energy, innovation, and thoughtful approaches that youth are developing to address the impacts of climate change. Today’s youth are uniquely positioned to elevate their voices and perspectives about this issue that impacts their lives today and tomorrow, as well as the lives of their future generations. Their focus on the most vulnerable communities is one of the driving forces behind the climate justice movement.

This commitment of positive social change has its roots in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Earlier this year, Jibreel Khazan, one of the Greensboro Four who began a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, used the 55th anniversary of the protest as a call for youth action, noting that:

Climate change is young people’s ‘lunch counter moment’ for the 21st century. When my three classmates and I sat down at that lunch counter to end segregation we did not know what the outcome would be. We simply knew that we had to act. We had to take bold action for necessary change to come about. It is in the tradition of civil and human rights struggle that young people today are calling for action on climate change. It is the biggest threat to justice and opportunity our planet has ever seen.

Climate change is considered an environmental stressor that has catapulted a new generation of leaders and activists into the environmental movement. Youth constitute the majority of the population in many countries and have increasingly strong sense of social awareness and environmental perspectives. The efforts of the New York City Climate Justice Youth Summit as well as the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Climate Change Initiative are evidence that an organized and forward thinking delegation of youth is taking root in the climate change conversation. It is critical that these voices be heard and viewpoints incorporated into policymaking.

We recognize the key role that youth play in bringing awareness to climate change and offering solutions to transform our societies towards a low-carbon and climate resilient future. It is essential that youth have a seat at the table and help inform the hard decisions that must be made that affect so many. Thus, the formation of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council Youth Perspectives on Climate Justice Work Group is our effort to include young people in assisting EPA in addressing climate change concerns. This advisory work group is the first of its kind in any federal agency. We are looking forward to working with a geographically diverse group of emerging thought leaders in the climate change space. The work group will comprise up to 15 leaders between the ages of 18 and 29 to assist us in developing strategies and finding opportunities to combat climate change and empower other young people to take on the challenge. Applications for the work group are due to EPA by November 30, so spread the word.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy put it best in a recent blog when she wrote that

Fighting for environmental justice, and climate justice, echoes the spirit of America’s great civil rights leaders; it’s a spirit fueled by our moral obligation to leave our children a world safer and rich with opportunity. History proves even the most wrenching strains on justice can be unwound, with a committed, diverse, and vocal coalition of people calling for change. That’s why EPA, the Hip Hop Caucus, and organizations around the country are fighting for climate justice—so we can further fairness and opportunity for all.

We need your power. We need your voices. Act now. Your voice matters!

For more information about how to engage in this effort, contact me at nejac@epa.gov. More

We Must Work Together to Build Resilience in Communities Facing Climate Change 

By Kelly Overstreet

EPA brings in students every summer to work, learn practical environmental skills, and enhance their educational experience through our Pathways Intern Program. The Big Blue Thread is proud to feature several blogs written by these interns, focusing on what motivates them to work in the environmental sector and what attracted them to EPA. We’ve already posted blogs by Andrew Speckin and Sara Lamprise. Our third blog is by Kelly Overstreet, who continues to intern with our Program Operations and Integration staff.

151006 - CREAT logo

In August, I attended a fascinating Climate Change Workshop, sponsored by the Nebraska Silver Jackets, with my EPA colleague Robert Dunlevy. Silver Jacket groups partner with federal and state agencies to manage flood risk at the state level. Bob made a presentation on EPA’s Climate Resilience Evaluation and Awareness Tool (CREAT), a software tool to assist drinking water and wastewater utility owners and operators in understanding potential climate change threats and assessing the related risks at their individual utilities. As an intern, I went along to gain some valuable, direct experience in collaborative problem-solving.

Bob Dunlevy and Kelly Overstreet

Bob Dunlevy and Kelly Overstreet

As we drove north to the workshop at the Lewis and Clark Missouri River Visitors Center in Nebraska City, Bob used the trip as a teaching opportunity, noting sites of loess (windblown sediment), commenting on the heights of various rivers and streams, and discussing the variety of unique geological structures here in the Heartland. Many of these lessons were anecdotal, relating to his 25 years of experience working with communities as an EPA representative.

Bob reminded me of the unique position EPA plays as a U.S. regulatory agency. We have a broad mission to ensure that “all Americans are protected from significant risks to human health and the environment where they live, learn and work.” In achieving that mission, we as federal employees must focus on our individual contributions to help achieve EPA’s overall goal.

In economics, there is the phenomena of “agglomeration economies.” While the concept can get quite technical very quickly, the general idea is that businesses are most successful when they exist in proximity to each other. This allows for the exchange of tacit knowledge between businesses that provide goods and services both laterally across sectors and vertically within.

However, such knowledge doesn’t only exist in the private sector. Upon arriving at Nebraska City, I had the opportunity to witness the power of tacit knowledge firsthand. The workshop offered a series of lectures and talks from several federal, state, and local agencies directly involved in flood resiliency and adaptation measures.

View from Lewis and Clark Missouri River Visitors Center

View from Lewis and Clark Missouri River Visitors Center

Not surprisingly, we joined representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, all with different missions and different sets of tools for accomplishing their goals. And yet, through the collaborative process of sharing knowledge and asking questions, I left with a much stronger sense of the challenges we face in coping with extreme weather events.

Sometimes our role in EPA’s mission can feel piecemeal, but to best achieve our mission, we must form partnerships and foster relationships. Each of us has a different focus and knowledge set, but as long as we continue to have conversations, like at the Silver Jackets training, we don’t have to be limited by the specific priorities that shape our service.

About the Author: Kelly Overstreet is a Student Intern at EPA Region 7, who worked full-time this summer and will continue part-time during the school year. She is a graduate student at the University of Kansas, earning master’s degrees in urban planning and human geography. Kelly’s graduate research focuses on how municipal climate planning can address issues of environmental justice and social equity. She’s a cat lady, and proud to show off her pet photos.

The Pope’s Visit – Renewing the Call to Act on Climate

By Administrator Gina McCarthy

This week, Pope Francis made an historic visit to Washington, DC, where he met with President Obama, addressed Congress, and lead a public rally to support moral action on climate justice.

This summer, the Pope issued a landmark encyclical emphasizingour moral obligation to act on climate change – for the sake of our kids and vulnerable populations around the world. His visit to Washington this week is a reminder that taking action is as urgent as ever to protect our “common home”.

At EPA, we couldn’t agree more. Environmental justice is at the core of everything we do – including our work to address climate change. Climate change is personal—it affects every American. But low-income and minority communities are particularly vulnerable to climate-related changes like stronger storms, floods, fires, and droughts. And on top of that, they are often the least able to rebuild after a disaster.

Low-income and minority Americans are also more likely to live in the shadow of polluting industries like power plants, and more likely to be exposed to higher levels of pollution. And the carbon pollution driving climate change comes packaged with other dangerous soot- and smog-forming pollutants that can lead to lung and heart disease.

More than 10 million American children have been diagnosed with asthma. But black and Latino children, as well as children from low-income families, are more likely to suffer from asthma and respiratory problems than other kids are.

Of course, climate change isn’t just happening here in the U.S. Citizens in low-lying countries like Bangladesh and Pacific Island nations are retreating from sea level rise; parts of Africa are facing blistering drought, threatening the food supply; indigenous people in the Arctic are seeing summer sea-ice recede to unprecedented levels.

We all have roles to play in taking action on behalf of those who bear the brunt of the effects of climate change. And by working together, we can meet the challenge. This message was crystal clear in the Pope’s recent encyclical:

“Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.”

I’m so proud to be able to say that the United States is stepping up to this call.

EPA’s Clean Power Plan puts our Nation on track to slash carbon pollution from the power sector 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030—all while keeping energy reliable and affordable. As we speak, states across the country are putting pen to paper and crafting plans for implementation.

The faith community has been an extraordinary catalyst for climate action, and we’ve seen incredible support and progress from the private sector as well. Businesses of all sizes are embracing the task, working to reduce their carbon footprints, planning for future climate change, and propelling innovative clean energy solutions forward. I also continue to be encouraged by the steps being taken by our partners around the world, including economies large and small and some of the world’s biggest emitters.

This collective momentum makes me confident that a global climate agreement will be reached in Paris later this year. And it gives me hope that we will rise to the Pope’s moral call: to protect the least of these, and to safeguard a beautiful, abundant planet full of opportunity for our kids and for generations to come.

Climate Week NYC 2015

By Melissa Dimas

NYC residents affected by Superstorm Sandy call for action at last year’s People’s Climate March.

NYC residents affected by Superstorm Sandy call for action at last year’s People’s Climate March.

It is climate week in the U.S. and here in New York City, we are coming up on the first anniversary of the People’s Climate March. Along with 400,000 other concerned citizens from around the world, I lined up along Central Park to show support for lawmakers working to create effective climate change policy, and dismay that all across the globe we have not done enough to combat and adapt to climate change. We need an international agreement; and, we needed about 20 years ago.

People’s Climate March in New York City, September 21, 2014.

People’s Climate March in New York City, September 21, 2014.

For the past decade, and many years before that, climate experts and country negotiators have met for the Conference of Parties (COP) to attempt to come to an agreement, on how as a society, we can collectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Every year, it is two steps forward, one step back, but it is important to remember that we are still moving forward. We have come a long way from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, but here we are, almost 20 years later and no solid agreement.

This year, at the end of November the 21st conference of parties is in Paris. World leaders are attending the COP 21 and there is hope, and momentum, that the world will finally agree to legally binding greenhouse gas emission targets. There are many other critical climate change issues that will be negotiated at the COP 21, and hopefully by the end of the two-week long meeting the world will move three steps forward and never look back.

About the Author: Melissa Dimas works in Region 2 as International Affairs Program Manager. 

Cooking Up Solutions to Climate Change

By Natalie Liller

EPA’s 5th annual Science of Climate Change Workshop

EPA’s 5th annual Science of Climate Change Workshop

June 15-19th, 2015 marked EPA’s 5th annual Science of Climate Change Workshop—and even more importantly, it summoned the latest group of talented high-school-aged students to learn about the science behind taking action on climate change. This year, the program focused on climate science and the impacts of climate change. World-class scientists, engineers, and policy experts demonstrated their research and led hands-on activities to encourage innovative thinking.

The program’s goal is to reach out to students with a keen interest in science and climate change and equip them with the knowledge and resources to go out into their homes, schools, and communities to raise awareness and to encourage others to act. EPA’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Outreach Program, under the leadership of Director Kelly Witter, is engaging these young, bright, and enthusiastic students to extend their knowledge on climate change and build their confidence to become the scientific leaders of their generation.

EPA's Seth Ebersviller, Ph.D. shares the latest cookstove innovations.

EPA’s Seth Ebersviller, Ph.D. shares the latest cookstove innovations.

As a part of their week-long education, the students were able to see sustainable energy being harnessed while speaking to the scientists and engineers about their work. During one session, the students learned about the technology behind biomass-burning cookstoves and solar ovens with Seth Ebersviller, Ph.D., an EPA Post-Doctoral Fellow. With this first-hand exposure, the students constructed their own solar ovens using recycled pizza boxes and aluminum foil and then baked cookies. These excited students were able to take their knowledge on solar power and apply it to an everyday need—cooking.

Unfortunately, it is not all “milk and cookies.” There is a monumental need for change on a global scale to combat the effects of climate change, present and future. Witter believes that students will be the largest advocates for climate awareness because “they understand and appreciate the science.” She hopes that through this program the students will take their “enthusiasm and passion for protecting the environment and share it with their peers to make a difference and help slow the impacts.” And they are doing just that—six program students are already working on educating their peers with hopes of creating a Climate Club chapter at their respective schools. Cassidy Leovic (Riverside High School) said that the goal of the clubs will be to “inform peers on what they can do,” focusing on energy conservation and sustainable food choices. EPA is thrilled to see these students taking action and looks forward to seeing them continue to foster this enthusiasm and change in the coming years.

About the Author: Natalie Liller is a sophomore at Appalachian State University, majoring in Political Science, Pre-Legal Studies and Environmental Science. This summer she is interning at EPA to focus on educating students on environmental science and climate change.

Heat Waves and Climate Change: Learning from History and Looking Ahead

By Allison Crimmins

Twenty years ago this week, Chicago suffered from a historic heat wave.  Families tried to stay cool in backyard wading pools and the news begged people to check on their older neighbors, who refused to turn on their air conditioning because it would cost too much. An estimated 700 people died from the heat during that two-week period, many of them elderly (learn more about heat-related mortality). Behind this grim statistic were real people and communities. An oral history of the heat wave published last week by Chicago Magazine has eloquently captured some of these stories of suffering.

heat-deaths-example-download-2014We know climate change will bring more frequent and intense heat waves to the U.S.  Twenty years later, are we twenty years wiser? In terms of preparing for another heat wave or “adaptation planning,” I’d say yes. Chicago’s Climate Action Plan is working to make the city cooler through urban planning (such as preserving green landscapes) and becoming better prepared to respond to future heat waves. But what about addressing the greenhouse gas emissions causing those more frequent and intense heat waves in the first place?

EPA’s recently released report Climate Change in the United States: Benefits of Global Action looks at projected heat-related deaths in 49 U.S. cities (representing about 1/3 of the population) under two scenarios: one where the world takes action to cut global emissions and one where it doesn’t. The risks of inaction are sobering. Without action to reduce global greenhouse gases, the average number of extremely hot days is projected to more than triple from 2050 to 2100.extreme-temp-fig-1-downloadBut there is good news. Taking action on global climate change is estimated to result in significant public health benefits by substantially reducing the risk of extreme temperature-related deaths across the U.S. Extreme temperature mortality can be reduced by 64% in 2050 and by 93% in 2100, compared to the scenario where the world does not take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  That means approximately 12,000 fewer people could die each year from extreme temperature in the 49 modeled cities in 2100. Inclusion of the entire U.S. population would increase these numbers. Activities to adapt to more frequent heat events can help reduce heat mortality, but reducing emissions is still important to saving lives. Including the assumption that cities take significant steps to prepare for extreme heat into the analysis, emissions reductions could still prevent 5,500 deaths per year by the end of the century.

Scientists have been calling on the world to reduce carbon pollution for more than twenty years. The United States has the opportunity and the ability to lead the world in global actions to cut carbon pollution that, by the end of this century, could avoid 12,000 heat-related deaths each year– not to mention save the lives of 57,000 people every year who could die prematurely from the adverse air quality impacts associated with climate change. I can think of no more important reason than that to take action on climate change now.extreme-temp-fig-3-downloadAbout the author: Allison Crimmins is an environmental scientist with EPA’s Climate Change Division, where she focuses on the impacts and risks associated with climate change, especially on human health. Prior to joining EPA, she earned one Masters degree in oceanography by exploring past climates in ocean sediments and a second Masters’ degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School. She lives, works, and judges the occasional science fair in Washington, D.C. but still cheers for the Chicago Bears.