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Health Concerns Spur U.S. Senate to Global Warming Action

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, October 23, 2007 (ENS) - Amid growing evidence that scientists have underestimated the pace of global warming, public health experts on Tuesday urged U.S. lawmakers to support efforts to better understand the human health impacts from climate change.

Dr. Michael McCally shares his concerts with Senate lawmakers. (Photo courtesy EPW)

"Climate change is a global health crisis," Michael McCally, a public health physician and executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Scientists predict climate change will increase heat waves, fires, flooding, hurricanes and drought - all of which adversely impact human health, McCally said.

Furthermore, a warming climate also has the potential to decrease air quality, negatively impact the quantity and quality of fresh water supplies and increase vector, food and water-borne diseases.

"Weather is inextricably linked to health," said Julie Gerberding, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, CDC. "We see that in the kinds of weather events that occur every day. We see it seasonally with the relationship to influenza, we see it over years in the consequences of things like El Nino, and I believe we will see this on a much a long time-frame in the context of our changing climate."

Gerberding, citing the raging fires in California, the drought affecting the southeastern United States and this week's flooding in New Orleans, said CDC is increasingly "being asked to prepare and respond to these kinds of extreme weather events."

Dr. Julie Gerberding heads the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Photo courtesy EPW)

Climate change is already affecting human health, said McCally, noting that the World Health Organization, WHO, estimates that global warming contributes to 150,000 deaths and five million illnesses every year.

While those deaths and illnesses "may not be as apparent in the United States, the impacts of global warming are pervasive and will shortly affect every citizen in this country in some manner," he told the committee.

State health officials are increasingly concerned, according to Susan Cooper, Tennessee health commissioner and member of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers.

Earlier this month the association unanimously adopted a position statement supporting the latest findings of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and recognizing that climate change has far-reaching implications for public health.

Cooper warned the committee that climate change could place "unprecedented demand" on the nation's public health system.

High temperatures damage the environment, property and human health. (Photo by Evin Oryan)

The committee considered the issue as it prepares to finally consider global warming legislation and in light of a new study that finds atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, has increased 35 percent faster than expected since 2000.

A team of scientists from the University of East Anglia, the Global Carbon Project and the British Antarctic Survey published research in the latest issue of the U.S. journal "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" showing that improvements in the carbon intensity of the global economy have stalled since 2000 after improving for 30 years. They say this has led to the unexpected growth of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

But whether this latest information - or the warnings of public health experts - will do much to sway opponents of global warming legislation is unclear.

Several Republicans have already raised concerns about the proposal set for consideration by the Senate Environment and Public Works global warming and wildlife protection subcommittee.

Senator Barbara Boxer of California (Photo courtesy EPW)

The bill, introduced last week by Senators Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Independent, and John Warner, a Virginia Republican, aims to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions some 60 percent by 2050.

A chief Republican complaint is the intent of leading Democrats to move the legislation quickly. A hearing by the subcommittee is set for Wednesday, with a tentative mark-up set for next week.

Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat and chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, has told colleagues she wants to get the bill through the full committee by December, before the United Nations annual climate change conference in Indonesia. At this meeting, negotiations are set to begin on a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, the world's only framework to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The protocol expires in 2012.

Six Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee sent Boxer a letter last week criticizing that plan, detailing concerns that several of them raised during Tuesday’s hearing.

Boxer’s schedule "falls far short of a considered and deliberative process," said Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, who has famously called global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."

Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma (Photo courtesy EPW)

The committee has held "hearing after hearing after hearing on what people think about global warming or what might happen if we have global warming," Inhofe said. "But little on what will happen if we legislate global warming."

Tuesday’s hearing was the 20th on climate change held this year by the committee.

Senator Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican, said the hearing on public health impacts from climate change showed "there is something very vital missing" in the debate over the Lieberman/Warner bill.

"No one is asking if a solution we are considering will inflict more harm on the American people than the things we are trying to avoid," Bond said.

Inhofe echoed that concern and said the issue of health and global warming appears to have "fallen prey to politics," warning that public health will be adversely affected by "rash action to pass costly symbolic measures."

Boxer rejected that concern outright, arguing that the science is clear and strong action is needed.

"This is a looming crisis and we have a responsibility to act," Boxer said. "If we wait, then we could waste valuable time and people could be severely injured as a result. You can't close your eyes to the future and you can't close your eyes to the present."

"We are so far behind," Boxer warned. "There are still people who say HIV doesn't cause AIDS and tobacco doesn't cause cancer - you are never going to have unanimity. Basically there is as close to unanimity as you can get from the scientists and among the doctors and yet it is so elusive here in the U.S. Senate. We are going to try to challenge that in this committee."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.

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