WASHINGTON – Climate change will pose “substantial” threats to human health in the coming decades, the Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday – issuing its warnings about heat waves, hurricanes and pathogens just days after the agency declined to regulate the pollutants blamed for warming.
In a new report, the EPA found “it is very likely” that more people will die during extremely hot periods in future years – and that the elderly, the poor, and those in inner cities will be most at risk.
Other possible dangers include more powerful hurricanes, shrinking supplies of fresh water in the West, and the increased spread of diseases contracted through food and water, the EPA said.
The strong warnings highlighted the contorted position that the EPA has staked out on climate change. Last week, the agency effectively decided not to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, at least not until after the Bush administration leaves office.
A former EPA official told a House panel this week that senior White House officials and several Cabinet members supported regulating the emissions before the White House changed course and barred the EPA from concluding that they endanger public welfare.
In an interview behind closed doors Tuesday, former EPA deputy associate administrator Jason Burnett told the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming that President Bush’s deputy chief of staff for policy, Joel Kaplan, originally signed off on the decision to regulate emissions from both vehicles and stationary sources such as power plants and refineries. The decision came in response to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling instructing the administration to determine whether carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases should be regulated under the Clean Air Act.
“There was a general belief that moving forward with a challenge and establishing a precedent in channeling regulation would serve the country better than leaving the challenge to the next administration,” Burnett said in the interview, according to a transcript obtained by the Washington Post. “The chief of staff’s office then appears to have changed its mind.”
“Today typifies the climate-change schizophrenia in the Bush administration,” U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who chairs the House panel, said in a statement. “On one hand, government scientists are saying that global warming poses grave threats to our health and our welfare, and, on the other hand, are White House political hacks following the oil industry’s bidding to do nothing.”
The EPA report Thursday was less notable for its warnings – similar problems have been predicted by other scientists and by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – than for its source. The Bush administration has resisted the conclusion that warming temperatures will harm human health, but in Thursday’s report, that finding was unmistakable.
“We … anticipate substantial human health impacts,” the document said.
In the West, it found, changing weather patterns could thin the snow packs that feed rivers, affecting both hydroelectric dams and water supplies. In coastal areas, it could bring sea-level rise that eats away at dry land and storm surges that can wash it away in a flash.
In Washington and other Eastern cities, the report said, a warmer climate is likely to produce more bad-air days because heat speeds up the process by which exhaust byproducts are cooked into smog. The report also found that warming temperatures were likely to mean more periods of sustained summer heat.
“It’s going to be hotter, it’s going to be hotter sooner in the year than it was in the past,” said Kristie Ebi, an Alexandria, Va.-based consultant and one of the report’s authors.
The report was prepared under the EPA’s leadership but released by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, which coordinates research among several federal agencies. Joel Scheraga, of the EPA’s Global Change Research Program, said that there was no political interference in either the findings of the report or the timing of its release.
“The answer is unequivocally ‘No,’ ” he said.
EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar said there was no conflict between the warnings in the report and the agency’s conclusion last week that regulation should be put off. The problem, he said, was that the agency is still searching for the correct way to address the issue.
“Climate change is a serious problem that our nation needs to address. But we need to address it correctly,” Shradar said.