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More pandemics? Health division hears how public health and climate change converge

Is the conversation about COVID-19 drowning out discussion of climate change? It may sometimes seem that way, but nine testifiers at a joint meeting Wednesday said issues of public health and climate change go hand in hand.

And some warned that you can expect more pandemics if climate change continues at its current pace.

The House Preventive Health Policy Division and House Climate and Energy Finance and Policy Committee joined together to hear the impact of climate change on public health. The effects cited were numerous, from illnesses brought on by heat, reduced air quality, ticks and mosquitoes to the mental health consequences of severe storms, flooding and drought.

The views ranged from the large-scale perspective of those working on public health on a global level to a Duluth doctor dealing with traditionally warm-weather maladies for most of the year.

Teddie Potter is the director of planetary health at the University of Minnesota’s School of Nursing and the chair of Harvard University’s Clinicians for Planetary Health. In her presentation, she said that “destruction of habitat and loss of biodiversity are creating the perfect conditions for diseases like COVID-19 to emerge.”

She also quoted a new World Health Organization study stating: “Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress alone. The direct damage costs to health are estimated to be between 2 and 4 billion U.S. dollars per year by 2030.”

Citing another study, Kristin Raab, climate and health program director for the Department of Health, said that among U.S. cities most affected by climate change, Minneapolis was ranked 14th and Duluth 16th. She highlighted two significant stressors upon public health: Large rain events — “10 of the 18 biggest rain events in state history have taken place in the past 20 years” — and vector-borne diseases.

A Duluth physician, Dr. Nyasha Spears, addressed the latter.

“In my two decades of practice, I have seen changes that should be regarded as harbingers of what’s to come,” she said. “When I started, it was very unusual to see a case of Lyme’s disease. That’s no longer true. … And, for allergies, we used to treat people for four to six weeks in the spring. Now, it’s not unusual to treat people for eight or nine months with a two-drug regimen.”

Another physician, Dr. Zeke McKinney of HealthPartners and the University of Minnesota, spoke of large health disparities between white Minnesotans and people of color. He described “eco-gentrification,” in which “more affluent individuals come in with a larger carbon footprint,” and “eco-apartheid,” his description of the wealthier suffering less from such issues as poor air and water quality.

Anthony Moulton, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, discussed how the health care system will adapt to climate change.

“The enduring health threats are likely to cause permanently higher levels of disease, disability and death,” he said. “Demand is likely to increase for health services and drive higher public and private spending.”

Christie Manning, director of sustainability at Macalester College, addressed the mental health effects of climate change.

“If people experience trauma from floods or extreme storms — especially if it happens to them more than once — they show effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression and substance abuse. … There’s also been an uptick in farmer suicides in places that have been hit hardest by drought.

“And I hear this from young people every day: There’s a lot of anxiety and uncertainty about the future. They recognize we are not addressing the magnitude of the problem.”

So what to do on the state level?

Dr. Vishnu Laalitha Surapaneni, a University of Minnesota Medical School professor, offered some suggestions that she said could slow climate change and improve public health. She said greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced and air quality improved by a move toward electric vehicles, sustainable agricultural practices, and renewable electricity sources.

“Burning things to generate energy is bad for our health,” she said.

Rep. Esther Agbaje (DFL-Mpls) asked if food is now less healthy and nutritious because of climate change.

“Our industrialization of farming practices has increased our carbon footprint,” McKinney replied, to which Surapaneni added, “Transporting food is a big part of emissions. The pandemic has shown us how supply chains are so fragile. Having locally produced food is going to help.”

Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen (R-Glencoe) called figures that say 97% of scientists accept climate change as fact the result of “lies” and “indoctrination.” Potter referred him to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration web page on climate change.

Surapaneni added: “If 97 out of 100 doctors tell you your child is sick, would you believe them or the three who disagree?”

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