With all the news coming out of Washington, D.C. the National Climate Assessment, released late in 2018, has not gotten the attention it deserves. The Report, the fourth one released by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, has a lot to say about health. The authors pay careful attention to the risks, impacts, and implications of continuing climate change in general and assess its likely economic and human costs. The findings are offered in plain language and they are just plain scary.
On the subject of health, the report pulls no punches, listing extreme weather and climate-related events, with effects on air quality, disease transmission via insects and pests, and threats to food and water. The changes "increasingly threaten the health and well-being of the American people, particularly populations that are already vulnerable."
How do you make people pay attention and demand action? As we know from the past, it takes an all-out effort with input from popular culture and news footage as well as expert assessments like those found in the report. During the Cold War, as the threat of nuclear annihilation loomed, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists brought us the doomsday clock, with the minute hand just seconds away from midnight. Hollywood did its part too, with horror films about atomic radiation, such as The Incredible Shrinking Man, and calls to prevent a nuclear Armageddon such as The Day the Earth Stood Still. The brilliant film, Dr. Strangelove or; How I Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb made us laugh and yet confront the brutal truth about possible nuclear annihilation.
Far less enjoyable, though more educational was the real-time televised lesson in brinksmanship during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We shuddered with fear and weren't sure when, how, or if the threat would end. And although the risk remains real (the Doomsday clock is now set at two minutes to midnight) we at least saw lines of communication open, negotiations over nuclear missile stores begin, international cooperation in other arenas and treaties aimed at preventing war.
We now have the 21st-century version of a global threat and multiple cultural responses. The big screen brought us The Day After Tomorrow and An Inconvenient Truth. Television lets us watch massive climate-change driven weather events — such as Hurricane Katrina to Superstorm Sandy — and listen to scientists linking catastrophic events to a warming planet. News reports on the Zika outbreak have served to remind us that climate change leads to the spread of disease-carrying insects once confined to other parts of the globe. The Union of Concerned Scientists is keeping watch over fossil fuel companies and working to keep the public informed about efforts to make a healthier planet and a safer world.
As public health writers, we have to make sure people understand the effects of climate change on health. Individuals may fear epidemic disease outbreaks, but may not have the same concerns about heat-related deaths. But they should. People might watch or listen to broadcasts about fires and floods and feel deep sympathy for those losing their homes, livelihoods, or even their lives. But they also need to give thought to the long-term mental health effects of catastrophes, or of forced migration due to climate change. Food insecurity is already a problem for millions of households. We need to make people understand that it is likely to become even more of a threat. Climate change leads to declining agricultural productivity and higher food prices. And we need to point out that the individuals most at risk for suffering from the health problems precipitated by climate change are children, older adults, and those living in low-income communities and some communities of color.
Despite the challenges, there is some good news. With the outpouring of scientific and popular information, public opinion is shifting with more and more Americans recognizing that human activity is causing climate change. We have to hope that those making films, television shows, podcasts, art, and other cultural products will continue to underscore the message and the urgent need to take action. Experts will produce the science and the official reports; let's hope the media can capture the public's imagination and underscore the need to address climate change now. And let's hope that this greater awakening comes from big screen movies, not news reports of disasters and deaths.