Health & Fitness

Dr. Wood: Do what you can to stop climate change, but also prepare for its impacts

Climate change, or the change in global patterns of weather and climate over time, is a process that has been observed happening across many centuries, and those patterns are affected by human activities around the world.

Climate conditions affect our lives and our health. Extreme heat (or cold), for example, can lead to injuries and life-threatening illnesses. Heavy rains can cause flooding, which in turn can have health effects. The availability of enough rainwater can effect drinking water supplies as well as food production, not to mention habitat for other animals such as fish. It’s clear that our health is tied in many ways to our climate.

Climate change is caused by global warming. Global warming is caused by an excess of certain gases (such as carbon dioxide and methane) in our atmosphere. These gases trap the sun’s energy, and are produced by the burning of coal, gas, and oil (fossil fuels). Because humans use fossil fuels for so many things, from heating homes to manufacturing and transportation, we have shifted the climate of our planet, making it less stable, and causing the atmosphere to warm too much. (To better understand what climate change really is, and how it works, check out the great video from Smithsonian, narrated by Bill Nye, the science guy.)

In our area, scientists from the University of Washington are projecting that we will have longer, drier summers, with more days above 90 degrees. Across the state, the area burned by wildfires each year is expected to double by the 2040s. Scientists anticipate five more days of heavy rain by the year 2080. Sea level also is expected to rise substantially.

From these changes alone, it’s clear that our health will be affected. Generally, hotter weather and an increase in heat waves will mean more heat-related illness. It could also increase the presence of animals and insects that spread diseases, or bring new diseases. The prolonged summer and increased wildfires mean a decline in air quality and increased risk for those who have asthma or other illness related to breathing.

In winter, the wetter conditions and more intense precipitation, in addition to sea level rise, will mean we need to be prepared for more regular flooding and storm damage over a wider area.

While the predictions for climate change can be disturbing, we can all do our part, both as individuals and as a region, to reduce these risks and better protect our health.

Thurston County, and local cities, together with Thurston Thrives, are working to reduce the emissions that contribute to climate change, to help keep the climate stable for future generations in Thurston County. Part of this involves action by cities and other local governments. The Thurston Climate Mitigation Plan is being developed now by Lacey, Olympia, Tumwater and Thurston County, with the help of many residents. The project is gathering input from residents through a survey available at the Thurston Regional Planning Council website: www.trpc.org/climate.

Part of stabilizing our climate requires reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This will be a challenge, and it will require action by people throughout our community and others all over the world. Simple actions like choosing to carpool, ride the bus, bicycle or walk rather than drive alone, as well as using energy efficient lights and appliances, can help.

In addition, we can be thoughtful about climate impacts when making purchases. According to scientists in the science journal Nature, even eating less meat can help stabilize our climate. A lot of our emissions come from just being inefficient with our daily decisions. Think about how you could reduce the energy you use. Try the New York Times’ survey and tips in How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint.

Part of thinking about big patterns can be getting prepared for disasters. To prepare for storms or floods that could result in the loss of electricity or other services, plan to have at least two weeks of food, water and other personal supplies stored at home. Visit Thurston County Emergency Management personal emergency preparedness for more information.

The summer is ramping down, but there may still be some hot days ahead. Knowing where your nearest cooling center is and how to avoid heat-related illness or unhealthy air (reduce activity levels, stay indoors) are also key to keeping yourself and family members safe and healthy in a warming world. (See my July 19, 2019 column to find more tips on dealing with wildfire smoke).

Lastly, it’s important to know that every year may not be worse (hotter and drier) than the last. There is a large-scale climate change pattern, but smaller shifts from year to year are not always what’s expected. This year we’ve had a cooler and wetter summer than we’ve had in recent years, resulting in a much lower wildfire risk than was anticipated. Thankfully, this meant fewer smoke-related hazards than over the past few summers.

But the summer pattern overall is moving towards hotter and drier conditions, with all the related risks, long term. I encourage you to learn more, and to do your part to keep our climate as stable as possible, as well as to remain aware of and prepared for changes in our region’s conditions. You can read the full Thurston Climate Adaptation Plan online.

Reach Dr. Rachel C. Wood, health officer for Thurston and Lewis counties, at 360-867-2501, woodr@co.thurston.wa.us, or @ThurstonHealth on Twitter.
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