Hurricanes pound the Gulf Coast with unrelenting force. Floods deluge the Midwest. Wildfires rage out of control in California and Florida. A "red tide" of algae blooms off the West Coast, endangering marine and coastal wildlife. Dengue fever spikes in Mexico and looms over the United States.
No one can say with certainty that any single one of these events is due to global climate change. But there is little doubt among scientists that we are making unprecedented changes to our environment, with grave potential consequences already upon us and others on the horizon.
Global climate change is more than a weather phenomenon; it is also a major public health issue. The environmental threats are increasingly appreciated, but the human health effects have received less attention. And the effects — caused by intense weather events such as heat waves, wildfires and floods, and indirectly from changes in water, air, agriculture and infectious disease patterns — are troubling.
The World Health Organization estimates that our shifting climate is now responsible for widespread health effects, including millions of illnesses and 160,000 deaths each year, many from the spread of malaria into new areas where mosquitoes were once unable to survive. In the absence of uncontrolled greenhouse gases, the projections are far more sobering.
Public health has mostly remained on the sidelines amid policy debates on reducing greenhouse gases. That is a mistake. It is our responsibility to explain the science and advocate for policy change. Addressing the root causes of global warming has the dual benefit of dealing with the unfolding catastrophe as well as reducing other environmental air pollutants that are also causing an unacceptable burden of cardiac and respiratory illness and death.
In late January, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Nobel Prize-winner and former UCLA faculty member Al Gore warned that climate change is occurring far faster than even the worst predictions last year by the United Nations' Nobel Prize-winning scientific panel on climate change.
Forecasts that the North Pole ice cap may disappear entirely during summer months in as little as five years have led Gore to declare a "planetary emergency" unlike any other in human civilization.
The United States has a window now to prepare for some of the health consequences of global warming. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared that preparing for the health threats from global warming is a top priority.
Yet President Bush's budget for fiscal 2008 is silent on this issue. A national strategy and comprehensive approach are needed — not to delay but rather to add to what we already know but conveniently disregard. We need more science, yes, but also resources and leadership to plan and implement programs that help us prepare to address current and future health consequences of the climate crisis.
At UCLA, we have an opportunity to be leaders. The School of Public Health recently hosted a first-of-its-kind summit to explore the health effects of climate change and is actively engaged in partnerships across campus to address this critical, yet insufficiently recognized, issue.