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

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

C. H. Ballard January 7, 2013 at 1:16 pm

“We know that greenhouse emissions currently in the atmosphere have put us on an irreversible course toward a warming planet and more variable weather.”

I disagree with the premise of this post that we “know’ to the degree of certainty implied that global warming is totally related to greenhouse gas emission, and/or human-related activities.

Geological and fossil evidence shows that in the past, the earth has been warmer than presently occurring. It is entirely possible that a warming trend can occur no matter what could actually be done to reduce CO2 or other greenhouse gas emissions. It is also far easier to demonize some ‘man’ than to deal with a natural phenomenon that will proceed on its course whether or not “we” do something to try and ‘stop or reverse’ it.

Resources are limited to deal with global warming at any level. It would be far more practical to direct those resources long term to dealing with mitigating the actual effects than to deal with unproven technology of uncertain efficacy to try to roll back greenhouse gas emissions to levels that might or might not ‘help’. For example, the engineering project to protect New York City and its millions of inhabitants should be starting now.

Telling people to change their lifestyle and doing things that increase their cost of living may make some people feel better about themselves, but it will cause more harm in the long run if badly-needed resources are diverted to feel-good schemes instead of pragmatic approaches to dealing with the real world.


Patrick January 10, 2013 at 4:19 pm

How are the risks of heat different for people in rural areas that don’t face the effects of the urban heat island? Are the concerns for this population primarily related to limited access to and availability medical services?


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