There are multiple levels to the debate about global warming. The foundation level involves understanding the forces driving climate change, in particular, the extent to which rising temperatures over the past century can be explained by rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and to what extent they might be attributable to other factors not yet well understood. Embedded in this debate are projections of how precipitously temperatures will rise in the future.
Layered over the causes-of-climate-change debate is the effects-of-climate change debate. What impact will climate change have on the environment and mankind? The prevailing sentiment is that effect of rising temperatures will be universally baleful — there are no redeeming attributes worth discussing and, therefore, something must be done.
That view is reflected in a new paper by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), “Climate Change and Health in Virginia.” From the summary:
Have you noticed that Virginia summers have gotten hotter and stickier? Does it seem like allergy season is more intense? Is your home flooding more often than it used to?
It’s not your imagination. Climate change is altering seasonal patterns, making our summers hotter, and fueling increased flooding from coastal storms, like Hurricane Sandy in 2012. As a result, we face more heat-related illnesses, air quality issues, food and water contamination, traumatic injuries, threats to our mental health, and infectious diseases. These threats will only get worse as big polluters continue to pump carbon from coal, oil, and natural gas into the air.
The paper goes on to elaborate several points:
- Extreme heat is bad for Virginians’ health — and could become more deadly.
- Coastal floods are getting worse — and could disrupt emergency health services.
- Climate change could contaminate Virginia’s drinking water.
- Rising temperatures could make Virginia’s seafood dangerous to eat.
- Climate change puts Virginia’s progress toward cleaner skies at risk.
- Allergy seasons are getting longer and more severe.
- Mosquito- and tick-borne infections are increasing.
I am confident that some of these concerns are legitimate; as for the others, I don’t know. Sea levels are rising, and Hampton Roads is increasingly vulnerable to flooding. Rising water tables in coastal areas could well increase the infiltration of salt water in wells. Warmer waters could well promote the spread of vibriosis, a bacteria that can infect seafood and cause food poisoning in humans. NRDC is not making this stuff up.
But the Council is looking at just one side of the ledger.
Cold kills. The flip side of more extreme heat days is fewer extreme cold days. As it happens, cold kills a lot more people than heat does. According to a 2014 National Health Statistics Report, “During 2006–2010, about 2,000 U.S. residents died each year from weather-related causes of death. About 31% of these deaths were attributed to exposure to excessive natural heat, heat stroke, sun stroke, or all; 63% were attributed to exposure to excessive natural cold, hypothermia, or both.” In other words, cold kills twice as many people as heat in the U.S.
Cold viruses thrive in colder temperatures. Studies have found that rhinoviruses thrive in a slight chill, reproducing more quickly at 91.4° F than at normal body temperature. Lower temperatures in the nose also stifle the production of the body’s anti-immunity agents. In the words of Yale immunologist Akiko Iwasaki, “these temperature effects can result in an 100-fold difference in the level of cold virus” — enough to turn an asymptomatic viral population into a full-fledged cold.
If I wanted to draw the same kind of health connections as the NRDC, I would argue that pneumonia is a leading killer of the elderly, that pneumonia often results as a complication of catching a cold, and that a warmer climate could reduce the incidence of colds, pneumonia and hospitalization of the elderly.
CO2 promotes plant growth. The NRDC paper notes, “The carbon dioxide
driving climate change is also stimulating plant growth,” but sees that as a bad thing! Apparently, plant growth boosts pollen pollution and makes allergies worse. But there’s a plus side to plant growth. A higher CO2 level helps crops and trees grow faster and makes them more drought resistant. CO2 could be a boon to Virginia’s agricultural and forestry productivity. It could mean cheaper locally growth foods and vegetables and better nutrition for all Virginians, including, of course, the poor.
If the only thing you look for are negative effects, then negative effects are all you will find. Years of climate-change research have focused exclusively on the negatives. No scientist wins research grants to study a positive benefit of global warming. I don’t pretend to be able to answer whether warmer temperatures are a net positive or negative to mankind. I suspect that a truly dispassionate approach to the matter might well reveal that, while the effects of climate change are a mixed bag, the net result is negative — based mainly on the impact of the rising sea level. But that’s only a hunch. We haven’t seen a dispassionate approach, so the answer at this time is unknowable.
The NRDC is cherry picking data that fits its case. This particular paper can’t be taken seriously. What Virginia needs is a comprehensive and dispassionate look at the evidence.