Climate change will kill more people than COVID-19

When it comes to public health, states must brace for the long-haul

An aerial view of the Cameron Peak Fire on Aug. 15, 2020. (inciweb.nwcg.gov/Cameron Peak Fire)

Smoke first filled my home two months ago. For once in the Mile High state, inhaling isn’t the answer.

Most days my weather app now reads “unhealthy air quality.” Headaches, fatigue and a scratchy throat have become as much of my daily routine as caffeine and pajama-pant Zoom calls. At least once a week I dust ash and charred pine needles from the fallboard of my piano. Even my cat is sneezing.

Today, the Air Quality Index reached 153 — healthy air is less than 50.

My house is some 70 miles from the closest major fire, so my AQI is much better than that of my mountain neighbors. Slightly north, Fort Collins recently spiked over 200 according to local readings. Colorado already struggles with maintaining air quality, averaging 42 unhealthy days a year. By the time these fires are extinguished, a full two or three months might be marked by mask-inducing particulate matter, to say nothing of COVID-19.

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With over 200,000 American deaths amid a global pandemic, the climate crisis has struggled to receive the attention it deserves. Yet if 2020 is any indication of what is to come — and it is — the public health effects of climate change will easily dwarf COVID-19 in the long run.

The health impacts of air pollution are well documented: heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, acute respiratory infections, adverse birth outcomes — the list goes on. Other studies suggest wider implications, including inflammation of vital organs, and loss of sleep quality, mental health concerns and increased vulnerability to COVID-19. The Environmental Protection Agency addresses particle pollution directly, stating smoke inhalation is “linked to premature death.”

Yet poor air quality is the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg.  

As climate change becomes more pronounced, a cascade of public health impacts will arise. In Colorado, we’re likely to see downstream effects from increased wildfires, such as worsened water quality and heightened water scarcity, as potable sources are threatened by run-offs and accumulated biomass. Medical care can be disrupted by power outages and urgent transport can be impinged, as seen during an unprecedented two-week Interstate 70 wildfire closure in Glenwood Canyon. Excessive heat will exacerbate illness, and more severe natural disasters will claim lives. As food sources become affected, malnutrition and shortages will be aggravated. Mental health conditions will increase. Vector-borne diseases will spread, such as with ticks and Zika. Even the risk for future pandemics rises as deforestation continues. 

Unfortunately, even if we could eliminate all emissions today, we’re still committed to some level of change — the question is how much. Gov. Jared Polis has already hastened air quality improvement efforts, permitting the EPA to designate the state as a serious violator and supporting a slew of clean air legislation. Yet the drastic increase in wildfires warrants even stricter considerations. 

Adapting to the new and yearly rate of fast-burning fire plumes will require improving air quality well beyond current EPA standards to create a sort of protective range for when wildfires flare. This will require a multitude of efforts, ranging from across-the-board industrial pollutant capture and reduction to creative solutions in the transportation sector and more. Examples might include continued incentives to work from home, more local green spaces and bike paths, net-negative buildings, e-bike tax credits and shifts in urban planning to prioritize smoke-filled wind patterns. Partnerships with neighboring states will also be required, as well as increased clean energy initiatives by local communities and regulations for net-zero housing and air filtration. Public alerts and education of smoke risks can also temper public health impacts.

There’s more.

Mitigation work to aggressively reduce fast-burning wildfires is paramount. Removal of pine beetle kill, increases to prescribed burns, implementation of fire lines and significant increases to wildfire grants for homeowner mitigation are all priorities. Rapid alerts and escape plans should also be ensured for every mountain town — particularly cul-de-sac communities such as Telluride — to prevent gridlock, as was experienced in the devastating Camp Fire of 2018.

Of course, much of the public health stressors will burden low income, minority, sick and aging communities disproportionately. On top of existing health disparities, these residents will face unique challenges such as apartments ill-suited for smoke filtration as no federal indoor air quality regulations currently exist. Measures to protect these communities are especially necessary.

The bleak reality is that, much like with COVID-19, America failed to address climate change preemptively. Now, we must act to minimize the damage and adapt to a new normal. Neglecting to do so will wreak havoc on public health for decades to come.

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