Climate and Health: Not Just Crazy Weather

Climate and Health: Not Just Crazy Weather
By Paul Friedrichs, MD, a family doctor in Exeter NH

Ask an old-timer, and he will tell you this year’s weather is not the New Hampshire he remembers. In February, we had temperature swings from 15° to 70° and back again, and in May, from 35° to 90°. Ask a meteorologist, and he will tell you that average weather in New Hampshire– in other words, our climate– has changed. Look at the trends in ice-out dates for our lakes, tapping season for our maple syrup, mid-winter thaws affecting our skiing and snowmobiling industries, and water temperatures are affecting our fishing and lobstering. Multiple mid-May days of 85° in the White mountains is not “usual.”

We are headed towards a Mid-Atlantic climate.

According to the US Geological Survey, temperatures in New Hampshire have been increasing much faster than the global average, probably due to warmer ocean currents altering the Gulf of Maine. Every year since 1998, New Hampshire has been warmer than the 20th-century average. New Hampshire summer days are, on average, 3°F warmer than when I was born, and January through November 2020 was 4 degrees warmer than the historical average. Across the State, we’ve doubled the number of days above 90 (32 in Manchester in 2020, for example). In the month of May, in the context of our historic average highs of 70, we can now expect six May days topping out above 85 or 90°.

In healthcare, we have seen more Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses due to more frost-free days; an allergy season lasting 34 days longer; a mosquito season extended 15 days with its risks of EEE, West Nile, and other mosquito-borne illnesses; poorer air quality from hotter days; and more emergency department visits for heat-related illnesses.
The American Lung Association, American Heart Association, New Hampshire Public Health Association, and 57 other American public health organizations have declared, “Climate change is a health emergency,” and the World Health Organization has named it “the single biggest health threat facing humanity.”

As well documented in the 3,949-page compendium of scientific data known as the 2021 IPCC report, we know this is due to our increased generation of greenhouse gases, namely carbon dioxide and methane. We know we can correct this by continuing our transition to carbon-free energy sources, namely solar, wind, hydroelectric and nuclear, as well as in carbon capture by fostering healthy woodlands and oceans.

We now have an organization of healthcare workers in New Hampshire– doctors, nurses, therapists, technicians, public health professionals, and students in those fields– who want to talk about the impact of this climate change on our health– not only heat, but increases in extreme weather, catastrophic storms and floods, water quality, air quality, increase in tick and mosquito-borne illness, and the effect of plant and animal species migration on our local food supply. NH Health Care Workers for Climate Action (nhclimatehealth.org) knows that climate change impacts our health, and the degree of that impact is in our hands. Our professional responsibility is to speak up and educate our patients and the general population, indeed our ethical obligation and duty of care.

The Director-General of the WHO has reminded us that the impact of man-made climate change on our health “could dwarf those of any single disease. We will end the Covid-19 pandemic, but there’s no vaccine for the climate crisis.”
It’s time to heed the “long-term weather report” and take action now.

Paul Friedrichs MD is a family doctor in Exeter NH
You can join him at nhclimatehealth.org

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