WASHINGTON – For most of the nearly 30 years since Dr. Nicole Brodie’s asthma diagnosis, the athlete and Army veteran has been able to maintain an uninterrupted life, continuing to teach elementary school, coach a children’s team, and remain active. She was partly able to do this by moving her family from New York State to Atlanta for the warmer climate.
“When I arrived in Atlanta, my asthma was controlled with just [an] albuterol [inhaler] as needed,” she said at a panel event last week. “But in the last 10 to 15 years, I have had to be on oral steroids…I’ve increased to daily Allegra [allergy pill] and nasal sprays. And I keep a Benadryl on me at all times. I have to take four-to-five pills a day to manage my symptoms.”
And three weeks ago, she found herself in the hospital for an emergency intervention. The heat index had risen too quickly, causing her lungs to fall to 75 percent capacity.
The issue of climate change is often discussed in terms of failing infrastructure, energy squabbles, weather disasters, and ecological concerns. But a mounting body of research is showing that individual and communal wellness is also at stake; and communities of color tend to be some of the hardest hit.
“The theories are over. We needed an insurance policy, and now it’s time to cash in,” Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association said at a press conference to release the report. “For years we’ve debated if [climate change] is happening, but we are now seeing it in patients.”
Two reports released last week examined how the effects of climate change can deeply affect physical and psychological health, on both individual and communal levels. (The studies’ “effects of climate change” referred to trends in extreme weather events, food and water shortages, poor air quality, etc.).
The first report is a survey of 284 physicians of color across 33 states on their experience treating people suffering as a direct or indirect result of climate change. The survey was sponsored by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communications (4C Program), and the National Medical Association (the largest and oldest professional organization of African American physicians).
In the survey, 61 percent of physicians reported that climate change is affecting the health of their patients a great deal or a moderate amount, and 88 percent have experienced climate change effects outside of their role as physicians.
The most common climate-change related illnesses doctors were seeing in their patients, with 88 respondents seeing each of these trends, were injuries because of severe weather (such as back damage from shoveling after major snowfall), and illness aggravated by air pollution (such as COPD, asthma, and pneumonia). More than half the doctors also reported increases in treating waterborne and vector-borne illnesses (transmitted by insects or microorganisms, often stirred up by heavy rains and flooding).
In the case of asthma, African Americans already disproportionately suffer from this condition. According to the Office of Minority Health, In 2011 African Americans were 20 percent more likely than Whites to have asthma and three times as likely to die from it. Add the fact that communities of color and low-income communities tend to be situated in polluted areas, and the stage is set for disaster.
“When I was working in emergency medicine, I saw lots of uninsured people, and many had done every home trick they could to stave off [an asthma] attack,” said Dr. Benjamin. “And then they still had to wait because they had no insurance.”
These physical stressors are also taking a psychological toll, according to another report. “Beyond Storms & Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change” explores the mental, physical, and community health impacts of the effects of climate change. This compilation of existing research and expert analysis from climate change solutions nonprofit, ecoAmerica, and the American Psychological Association, finds that Americans will increasingly suffer mental health impacts at the hands of climate change.
“The impacts of climate change on human psychology and well-being arise through two main pathways,” the report reads. “Some impacts will arise from the direct physical impacts of climate change, while others will arise as a result of climate change’s more indirect impacts on human systems and infrastructure.”
The report offers several studies involving Hurricane Katrina victims as an example of a direct and severe hit to mental wellness resulting from climate change. For years after the storm, many survivors experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, “complicated grief,” and increased domestic abuse.
Indirect, or gradual impacts are more difficult to quantify due to a dearth of research. In one example, the study details a loss of personal or occupational identity after losing possessions in weather events, wildfires, and floods, or being unable to continue lifelong, sometimes generational occupations due to environmental changes (such as oceanic changes that destroy shrimping families’ livelihoods). In another example, the study discusses the relationship between rising temperatures and community aggression that has been well documented, particularly in Black communities.
Both reports find that women (particularly mothers), children, the elderly, and low-income families are the most vulnerable to climate change effects. They also both outline suggestions for people and communities to guard themselves against the adverse effects.
Dr. Christie Manning, co-author of the second report and visiting assistant professor of Environmental Studies at Macalester College, asserts that strong neighborhood networks and an emergency plan set in advance are the greatest defenses, for example.
“At the national level we see a lot of stalling and stalemate, but at the local and city level they realize this is something people need to be prepared for,” she explains. “Cities are seeing the infrastructure costs. Municipalities are really engaged in this idea of being prepared, and resilient.”
The good news is that most communities are bracing for impact by beefing up support services. In the beginning of May, The White House released the Third Annual Climate Assessment, and extensively reviewed report, created by a team of more than 300 experts, and guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee. Almost all science professionals have come to the same conclusion as the report: that climate change is affecting this generation now, and that most Americans are feeling the changes.
“Not a lot of people know a climate scientist, so when you say 98 percent of climate scientists say this is happening…it might not mean much to you,” said Dr. Mona Sarfaty, director of the 4C Program at George Mason. “But everybody knows a doctor.”