As the debate over rising health care costs reaches a fever pitch, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) warns that “global warming is a medical emergency.” In a press teleconference unveiling a new report on the human cost of increased heat waves, PSR executive director Peter Wilk, M.D. described global warming as “one of the gravest health emergencies facing humanity today”:
Global warming is one of the gravest health emergencies facing humanity today. It’s life threatening, it’s affecting us now, and if we don’t take bold and effective action, it could dramatically affect how we life on earth.
“More Extreme Heat Waves: Global Warming’s Wake Up Call,” jointly issued by PSR and the National Wildlife Federation, explains that scientists have found that global boiling will disproportionately threaten the health of the very old and very young, as well as the poor and those who live in big cities:
Global Warming Will Bring More Extreme Heat Waves. As the United States warms another 4 to 11°F on average over the next century, we will have more extremely hot summer days. Every part of the country will be affected. Urban areas will feel the heat more acutely because asphalt, concrete, and other structures absorb and reradiate heat, causing temperature to be as much as 10°F higher than nearby rural areas.
Urban Air Pollution Will Be Exacerbated By More Extreme Heat. Warm, sunny conditions accelerate the formation of ground-level ozone, a major component of smog. Even if air pollution is improved, as required by the Clean Air Act, global warming could mean an extra 10 parts per billion (ppb) of ozone during heat waves in the Midwest and Northeast, forcing some cities to take even more aggressive steps to meet the 75 ppb ozone standard.
Heat Waves Disproportionately Impact The Most Vulnerable. Heat waves disproportionately affect the very old and very young, as well as people who are poor, have asthma or heart disease, or live in big cities. With often diminished health and a greater likelihood of living alone, the elderly are especially vulnerable. As the U.S. demographics shift toward an older and more urban population, efforts to protect these at-risk communities from extreme heat will become increasingly important.
Natural Habitats And Agriculture Are Also Vulnerable To Extreme Heat. More extreme temperatures are already pushing wildlife and their habitats beyond their normal tolerance levels. Heat-related declines have been documented for wild salmon and trout, moose, and pika. Livestock and crops have lower productivity and increased mortality associated with heat stress and drought.
We Can Reduce The Severity Of Heat Waves And Their Impacts On Vulnerable People. Curbing global warming pollution as much and as quickly as possible is an essential first step. Shifting to clean solar energy is an especially promising option because sunlight is plentiful during heat waves, when electricity demand for air conditioning peaks. At the same time, we must make our cities cooler and greener; for example, introducing more green space — parks, trees, and “green” roofs — can greatly reduce the urban heat island effect. Furthermore, cities must implement public health measures to reduce the impact of extreme heat that we can not avoid.
Because blacks are disproportionately urban and poor, the rising tide of heat waves will affect them more severely than the U.S. white population. As NAACP’s president Benjamin Todd Jealous explained, “Climate change is a civil rights issue.”