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Summary of Briefings on Climate Change (10-4-02)

Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) Congressional Briefing on
Public Health Impacts of Climate Change
July 25, 2002

The relationship between public health and climate change was the main topic at a congressional briefing held by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) on July 25, 2002. The possible health risks caused by global warming are being researched at a global level. Five critical health issues have been identified: heat-related illness and death, health effects related to extreme weather events, health effects related to air pollution, water- and food-borne diseases, and vector- and rodent-borne diseases.

The first speaker was Robert K. Musil, executive director and CEO of Physicians for Social Responsibility, who asserted that the signs of global climate change and its negative affects on human health are increasing. With the current understanding among scientists of climate, the next challenge is in understanding the effects of climate change on human health, educating the public and policy makers, and developing policy solutions. Musil said the problem is complex as many of the worst health effects of climate change will occur over an extended period of time and in areas outside the US, especially in developing countries. Particularly vulnerable are the poor, minorities, elderly, and infants. Musil reported that the number of high heat stress days have doubled since the 1950s, which has led to increased number of heat-related health problems (e.g. stroke, death). According to the National Center for Health Statistics, heat waves are the deadliest natural disaster in the US. Musil also said increases in flooding from sea-level rise will lead to water quality and supply problems that can adversely affect health. Increases in severe weather could lead to more cold-weather related health problems such as hypothermia. Elevated ground-level ozone and smog in the atmosphere can cause severe coughing, shortness of breath, lung and eye irritation, and increased vulnerability to respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis and pneumonia. In a study by the American Lung Association, ozone caused more frequent attacks among children with asthma. In fact, asthma attacks are 40% more likely among children with asthma on high-ozone days. In closing, he emphasized the importance of the involvement of the medical community as well as the encouragement for "greater involvement in speaking out on the established science and clinical implications of climate change."

Dr. William K. Reisen, Director of the Arbovirus Field Station with the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California at Davis, spoke about the impact of climate change on vector-borne diseases. One of the take-home messages was that humans are incidental and dead-end hosts for diseases such as West Nile and St. Louis encephalitis--both of which are endemic to North America and passed on by mosquitoes. These viruses may be very active, but with few reported cases. There are no cures and current intervention is based on mosquito control. In terms of climate change, increased temperature would decrease mosquito generation times (increase growth rate) and decrease life expectancy. Increased water abundance, as a result of variations in rainfall patterns from climate change, could lead to increases in mosquito larval habitats, immediate increases in population, and increases in vertebrate host population size. Currently there is a lack of full understanding of all the linkages and thresholds, although some links have been made between climate variability, mosquito abundance and virus activity. Reisen recommended more research to improve the skill of long-term prediction of mosquito and virus activity based on global circulation models. He also said that more weather monitoring is needed as short-term predictions are more accurate for immediate health and mosquito control planning.

The final speaker was Dr. Devra Davis of the John Heinz III School for Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University, author of When Smoke Ran Like Water. Her main point was that air pollution reduction protects lungs and the climate. She promoted alternative energy sources as one way to address air-pollution problems. Nations such as Tibet, where solar panels are a major energy source, provide an example of the success of using non-polluting sources of energy. Davis stressed that air pollution is a severe regional problem with global implications. With air pollution known to exacerbate and even cause asthma, there is even more reason to reduce greenhouse gases.


EESI Briefing on Global Climate Change:
An Overview of the Science and NOAA's Priorities

July 23, 2002

On July 23rd, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing on climate change science and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) priorities.  All who spoke recognized the importance of climate change and seemed in agreement that climate change will be the "premiere issue of our millennium."  The co-chairs of the House Climate Change Caucus, Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) and John Olver (D-MA), provided opening remarks and were present for the full length of the briefing.  Gilchrest began by talking about the need for continued US leadership in gaining a better understanding of the earth system.  While members have worked to educate the House at large on the framework of climate and climate change, this task has proven to be a difficult one due to lack of time and interest.  He plans to push this issue more in the next session as he believes it is important for Congress to have accurate knowledge when making decisions.  Olver spoke of the indisputable scientific evidence that atmospheric CO2 is one-third higher than it has been in the previous 400,000 years.  Because of this significant fact, he argued, it is much easier to say that there is global warming.  Olver went on to state that along with this evidence, a massive body of excellent scientists has predicted increasing severity of various phenomena, such as droughts, flooding, and fires, which can be observed today.  Even the US Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) 2002 Climate Action Report details likely US vulnerabilities to effects of global warming and climate change.

The three members of the briefing panel then presented their talks.  Conrad Lautenbacher, Jr., Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and the Administrator of NOAA, recognized the great importance of understanding and mitigating climate change.  Noting that there has been some misinformation relating to what is and is not happening in the government relevant to climate change, Lautenbacher spent the majority of his speech detailing the key events in climate change policy and research of the past year or so, beginning with the president's Rose Garden speech on climate change in June of 2001.

Daniel Albritton, Director of the NOAA Aeronomy Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, has briefed cabinet-level individuals on the topic of climate change and humankind.  At the briefing, he presented a clear, concise picture of what scientists do and do not know about climate change.  He began by explaining that the climate system and its relationship to humans is highly complex, yet certain connections are simple to see.  Using a series of colorful sketches, diagrams, bullet points, and confidence indices (0 = no confidence, 10 = certain), he explored the climate system and its relationship to humankind.  Before getting into the science of his talk, Albritton highlighted the fact that climate change is not simply a science problem as humans enter into the problem at the beginning (as forcing agents) and the end (experiencing the consequences).  This was followed by five points on the current scientific status on understanding climate change, ordered from most to least certain:

Albritton then offered five bottom lines, based on the viewpoint of the vast majority of scientists:

Lautenbacher then discussed what the administration plans to do with the knowledge that Albritton presented.  Because climate change is such an important problem, it is no longer going to deal with it "ad-hoc" anymore.  The Climate Change Science Program will integrate all of the separate research and policy parts and fill in the gaps.  It will form a coherent federal government program to address climate change, build a sound science basis for the future, and serve as a forum for informed debates.  He then used an analogy to express the way in which the administration plans to address the climate change issue: if a person has a headache, they will not go straight to brain surgery, they would take tests in order to determine the best method to treat the problem. Likewise with climate change, reacting drastically without thoroughly understanding the problem is not the most reasonable way to go about it.

James Mahoney, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Director of the US Climate Change Science Program Office, agreed with Lautenbacher's analogy, adding that the reason for delayed action should have less to do with politics and more to do with requiring scientific accuracy.  He expressed the need for careful analysis of possible scenarios for the future.  This analysis is particularly important as there is a chance that we will not realistically be able to put all technologies or mitigation and adaptation methods into place, therefore we need to be sure we choose the correct path forward.  Mahoney then offered more detailed information on the genesis of the Climate Change Science Program and laid out its three level strategy that includes: continued scientific inquiry, increased implementation of observation and monitoring systems to fill in the data gaps, particularly in the oceans, and focus on the development of decision support tools.  He also stressed the importance of "maintaining a culture of open, transparent, well-reviewed scientific inquiry" that is "policy-neutral."

The two representatives were then given an opportunity to react to the statements of the briefing panel.  Gilchrest was short on time but did express his objection to the headache analogy used by both Lautenbacher and Mahoney.  He offered that if a person does have a headache, you give him/her aspirin or some other treatment immediately, you would not wait for many weeks and then decide it was time to look into tests to treat the problem. 

Olver agreed with Gilchrest's assessment of the headache analogy.  He voiced his opinion that a 90% confidence level pertaining to human-induced climate change is quite high -- high enough that we cannot afford to do nothing to reduce emissions until we know everything about the system, as CO2 is continuing to increase in the atmosphere while we wait.  When the US decides that something needs to be done it can make things happen quickly.  Fine tuning the science is likely to take decades and we cannot wait that long -- we must invest in the lower use of fossil fuels now.

Two congressional respondents, Bryan Hannegan, Republican Staff Scientist for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Margaret Spring, Democratic Senior Counsel for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, wrapped up the briefing.  Hannegan emphasized Albritton's point that the what, when, and how questions of global warming are not as well known, which makes it difficult on the Hill as those are the questions that politicians care about.  He offered hope for future scientific discoveries that will clarify human understanding of the climate system.  Spring spoke of the bipartisan support for improving climate science but seconded Gilchrest and Olver's view that policies cannot wait for 100% science certainty.  Human-induced climate change will be slow to reverse and the longer it is put off at the start, the more work that will need to be done in the end.  While she understood it is unrealistic to jump to zero emissions right away, there are many people who believe that doing something responsible now is not equivalent to jumping off a building.  She also shared her concern that the Climate Change Science Program is unnecessary as the US Global Change Research Program already serves as a national climate change program with the same emphasis and priorities.


Sources:   Hearing testimony, Greenwire, Environment and Energy Daily, U.S. Senate website, and U.S. House of Representatives website.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by Summer 2002 AGI/AIPG Geoscience Policy Interns Sarah Riggen and Evelyn Kim.

Posted October 4, 2002

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