By Brian G. Henning, Amber Lenhart and Bob Lutz
“Exceptional!” “Unprecedented!” “Record-breaking!” “Once in a 1000 years!” These are the phrases being used to describe our Spokane summer this year. Rather than average daytime temperatures in the 80s punctuated by short periods of temps in the 90s, days in the 80s have become the exception.
According to the National Weather Service, our average daily temperature has been 9.5 degrees higher than normal. Record highs have been combined with the lowest rainfall on record. For the first time in Spokane history, we are in “exceptional drought,” which according to the US Drought Monitor is associated with “exceptional and widespread crop/pasture losses; shortages of water in reservoirs, streams, and wells creating water emergencies.” The combination of high temperatures with low precipitation and low humidity has turned our forests into tinder boxes, with huge wildfires once again threatening communities across our region and the West.
These fires release huge quantities of air pollution that not only further warm our planet but create air quality unhealthy to breath. “Smoke season,” which itself was exceptional a decade ago, is apparently no longer limited to a few days in August. And this is just what climate change looks like locally. Because warmer air holds more moisture, flooding, such as recently experienced in Germany, China, England, and India, is becoming more common, where lives lost are measured in the hundreds and economic damage is measured in the billions.
Are we just having a particularly bad year? Yes, however, according to projections from the Spokane Climate Project (www.spokaneclimateproject.org), if we don’t rapidly transition away from heat-trapping forms of energy and transportation, by the middle of this century, the 2021 summer may become typical, rather than exceptional. The summer of 2021–much like the 2015 summer past–is like the ghost of summers future, revealing what will befall us if we don’t pursue dramatic reductions in the burning of fossil fuels.
The impacts of this climate chaos, as with the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, are often felt disproportionately on some members of our community – seniors, those with existing medical conditions, the poor and people of color. Environmental factors, such as air quality and access to clean and available water, affect individual and collective health. At the community and neighborhood levels, the social and physical environments can positively impact health, regardless of socioeconomic status. Redesigning with accessible green spaces, sidewalks and bikeways, and traffic slowing, may have a positive effect on health-related behaviors, leading to improved physical and emotional health.
Conversely, factors such as food deserts, violence, high traffic, industry-related air pollution, and lack of street trees, create environmental and psychosocial risks. These accumulate in neighborhoods over time, historically those redlined and of lower socioeconomic status, contributing to individual and collective vulnerability that is often generational.
Vulnerability – how individuals or groups inadequately respond to and recover from stressors – leads to disproportionate illness and hardship. Low-income families, Native Americans, people of color, unhoused individuals, and other historically-harmed communities who already face challenges to achieving their best health and well-being, are likely to experience more of the harmful effects of a changing climate, from food insecurity to exposure to pollution and extreme temperatures. The recent heat wave that took the lives of at least 20 Spokane citizens and more than 100 across the State demonstrated even those not considered vulnerable were not prepared. While empowering individuals
may make them less susceptible to environmental stressors, public health’s collective approach calls upon society to assure the conditions for everyone’s health. The Spokane draft Sustainability Action Plan (http://my.spokanecity.org/sas) calls for increasing community awareness of climate change risks and impacts, including climate impacts in disaster and emergency management response.
Health impact assessments and other public health tools offer practical roadmaps for engaging affected communities in predicting health outcomes and identifying policy solutions to mitigate negative impacts. Developing a heat action plan to prevent similar catastrophes in the future is essential. But this work can’t happen only with public health, academia or government; rather, it must be driven by our most impacted community members.
As a community, we must push ourselves to deeply understand the reasons why certain populations and individuals in our society are more vulnerable, and then address the disproportionate impacts and needs of those communities while also working toward a healthier climate and environment for all. Smart growth principles – tree planting, novel agricultural practices, improved active and public transportation options, and reducing source of climate pollution – could have universally beneficial effects on our changing climate.
Yet, unless we also increase resilience, opportunity, and capital within our most vulnerable and historically-excluded communities, we risk perpetuating the disproportionate burden they bear. If we are to collectively protect all people in our community from environmental stress – those with voices, and those without – we need more than a policy package; we need a paradigm shift.
Brian G. Henning, PhD, Director Gonzaga Center for Climate, Society, and the Environment Amber Lenhart, MPH, Co-owner and Lead Consultant, CedarPlank LLC Bob Lutz, MD, MPH, Washington Department of Health Medical Advisor, COVID-19 Response
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