Hot Button Issues: Climate Change

by Tracy Swinburn on January 7, 2013

The School of Public Health (SPH) recently published a feature in Findings magazine on ‘hot button issues’ with perspectives from the SPH community.  Several Risk Science Center members and collaborators were featured, and we are grateful to Findings for allowing us to re-post these articles as a six-part series in Risk Sense.

Marie O’Neill on Climate Change:

The Issue: Despite scientific consensus that the world is warming more rapidly than at any previous time in its history, and that human activities are a cause of this climate change, some people dispute the evidence and argue against measures aimed at addressing climate change. In its efforts to achieve “balanced coverage,” the news media often obscures the overwhelming agreement on the science. Evidence suggests that we are now seeing the impacts of climate change, and that there are known ways to prevent or diminish those impacts, particularly with regard to human health.

The Debate: From a public health perspective, we know that heat waves kill people; that flooding affects both mental and physical health; that the increasing incidence of hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and drought is a consequence of climate change and indisputably affects people’s health, lives, and livelihoods. We also know that the people who are most affected by climate change are those who have done the least to contribute to it. These people are often more vulnerable because of age, socioeconomic status, illness, and geographic location. So there is a moral dimension to our response to climate change. Indeed, many traditionally conservative churches and faith-based organizations have called for more responsible stewardship of our planet in terms of curbing energy use and addressing climate change.

A Way Forward: We know that greenhouse emissions currently in the atmosphere have put us on an irreversible course toward a warming planet and more variable weather. We can’t stop climate change—but we can slow its future pace through such actions as reducing emissions, increasing energy efficiency, and planting trees. Individuals can contribute in important ways by adjusting thermostats, using public transport, reducing consumption, recycling and reusing, and supporting policies for more sustainable energy sources.

Marie O’Neill, Associate Professor, Environmental Health Sciences, Epidemiology, U-M SPH; Member, Advisory Committee, National Climate Assessment (a Congressionally mandated effort to characterize how climate change affects the nation in various sectors, from economics to energy to health), Member, Risk Science Center

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