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Climate change: Taking it personal
By Terri Harber
Dr. Wendy Ring and her husband, Michael Shapiro, were pedaling a tandem bicycle through Baker City on Monday afternoon. They came to talk about the weather.
Theirs wasn’t a friendly little chat about pleasantly warm summer days, however. The couple wanted to discuss global climate change and its effects on people’s health.
The couple began their cross-country bicycle trip in Eugene earlier this month. They intend to reach Washington, D.C., in September. Ring wants to return to work as a family doctor in Eureka, Calif., by October.
Physicians “have one foot in the science world and the other foot in the people’s world,” Ring said. “Doctors can help people try to understand what climate change really means to them."
Scientists and other experts tend to talk about conditions expected in the year 2100. Ring prefers to focus on a future point to which more people can relate: 2050.
A speedy replacement of fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy sources could prevent a public health catastrophe, she said.
“In medicine there is a time period called The Golden Hour, when treatment must be given if the patient is to survive,” she said. “The Golden Hour is about to end and adequate treatment has still not been delivered.”
Health problem expected to greatly increase
The potential effects of climate change vary widely, from torrential rains to longer droughts.
Levels of methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide are on the rise in the Earth’s atmosphere and affecting its ecobalance. As a result, people are suffering more infections, asthma episodes and cases of heat stroke, Ring said.
More pollen is produced so people suffer more often — and more intensely — from allergies.
Increased ozone close to the earth’s surface irritates lungs, especially children’s.
“Children who play sports at least three times a week are more likely to have lung damage,” Ring said.
And in the United States, children not being able to exercise outside does nothing to improve their health, let alone the nation’s obesity statistics.
More drought results in more wildland fires. The smoke from these fires contains small particulates, which cause serious respiratory problems and heart attacks.
“Even short-term exposure can be very damaging to your health,” Ring said.
Expect more cases of food poisoning because it only takes an hour to spoil food sitting in a place where the air temperature is above 90 degrees. Excessive heat also cause red tides in the ocean that poison seafood, she said.
Diseases not known to exist previously in cooler climates are debuting, particularly viruses passed to humans through insect bites.
What can people do?
“America could be a leader in the international response to climate change, yet we contribute more to the problem than to the solution,” Ring said. “We know what needs to be done, but we don’t have the national commitment to carry it out. We need a national program, to set up policies and funding.”
That could include planning communities that allow people to more easily walk or ride bicycles so fewer people drive vehicles that emit pollutants.
Encouraging more active forms of transportation also helps to improve people’s health. Communities of all sizes are trying to offer better transportation alternatives to residents, Ring said. Examples include using smaller, more fuel-efficient transit buses to take people on more targeted trips, and allowing for space on the buses for riders to bring along their bicycles to further curb fuel consumption and tailpipe emissions.
Van pools, light rail and governments buying autos for groups of carpoolers are other methods being tried, Ring said.
The United States is the No. 1 country per capita in carbon dioxide emissions and No. 2 overall.
“We really have a big responsibility. We have been foot draggers. Party poopers,” Ring said. “And if the U.S. won’t do its part then China and India won’t do their part.”
Other suggestions Ring cited include making sure your home is well-insulated and as energy-efficient as possible.
And if you can’t do without an automobile, seek out a model that’s thrifty with fuel, she said.
The couple camps sometimes and is staying with hosts at other times as they travel across the country. They’re using a $35 solar charger to keep their cellphone, Kindle and other gadgets powered.
“We want to show that it’s possible to live in an energy-efficient manner — and to have fun,” Ring said. “I really believe people can do this and maintain, or even improve, their lifestyle. If we don’t change the way we live, then we’ll lose our lifestyle because climate change will take it away from us.”
Ring is a member of the group Physicians for Social Responsibility. For details about weathering climate change, visit www.psr.org.