Obesity and less nutritious foods—two reasons to care about a warming planet.
The federal government has declared that 2012 was officially the hottest year on record, with July alone setting the record as being the hottest month ever recorded in the lower 48 states. The worst drought in 50 years hit (and is still plaguing) the Great Plains, while Superstorm Sandy hit the Northeast and caused $79 billion in damages, making it the second most expensive natural disaster in history, after Hurricane Katrina.
In his inaugural address, President Obama vowed to act on climate change, which independent climate scientists have agreed is making extreme weather worse, “knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” he said.
Yet, it’s not just the raging fires, crippling drought, and more powerful storms he cited that people need to be wary of. Climate change is also exacting a toll on people’s health in ways that are both overt and subtle. Epidemiologists have known for a while that increased heat and stronger storms can inflict a range of problems, including strokes, heat-related illnesses, and more logistical problems such as waterborne diseases from overwhelmed water-treament facilities. But there are other, more subtle health problems that are being exacerbated by higher global temperatures:
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Greater obesity. More climate-change-driven droughts will lead to higher food prices—which inevitably leads to obesity, according to a series of letters published recently in the American Journal of Public Health. Nutritionists from the University of Washington who have researched the link between food prices and obesity write that droughts tend to raise prices on healthier foods, particularly vegetables and fruits, as well as on dairy, eggs, and meat. “As food prices continue to increase, refined grains, added sugars, and vegetable fats will replace healthier options, first for the poor and later for the middle class,” they write.
Poorer nutrition. In addition to raising food prices on healthy foods, climate change could be making those foods less nutritious. According to the newest National Climate Assessment from the U.S. Global Change Research Program (a government scientific advisory panel), elevated levels of carbon dioxide (which, along with other greenhouse gases, cause climate change) has been found to lower the nitrogen and protein content of grains, which are cheap, healthy vegetarian protein sources for millions of people around the globe. Likewise, scientists have documented declines of calcium, iron, zinc, vitamins, and sugars in fruits and vegetables because carbon dioxide causes plants to grow bigger and more rapidly, but their ability to absorb nutrients from the soil can’t keep pace.
More hormone-disrupting chemicals on food. That same government report noted that the carbon dioxide that causes plants to grow big and fast also causes weeds to grow big and fast—even more so than crops. As a result, “both herbicide use and costs are expected to increase as temperatures and CO2 levels rise,” the report states. Roundup, the most widely used herbicide in the U.S., is suspected of interfering with hormones, as is 2,4-D, the second most widely used herbicide in the country. Because weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup, “higher concentrations of the chemical and more frequent sprayings thus will be needed.” Or farmers will start turning to 2,4-D, a more potent and dangerous chemical without as many weed-resistance issues.
More contaminated fish. The United Nations recently concluded a meeting in Geneva at which governments of 130 countries were addressing the problem of mercury in the environment. The toxic heavy metal is emitted primarily by coal-burning power plants and builds up in fish, which serve as the main exposure source of mercury for people all over the globe. At the meeting, scientists presented research suggesting that climate change could exacerbate the levels of mercury in our food chain. One reason: Arctic ice deflects mercury in the air as a gas, and as we lose our polar ice stores, more atmospheric mercury lands directly in the water, where it builds up in the fatty tissues of fish. In addition, warm temperatures stunt the growth of certain cold-loving fish species, such as char and lake trout, concentrating the mercury in their systems. (Want to avoid mercury in fish? Stick with the 10 Healthiest Fish on the Planet.)
More birth defects. A number of studies have found that a high fever during certain critical stages of a mother’s pregnancy can trigger birth defects in babies. But it turns out that heat waves and unusually high temperatures raise a mother’s internal core temperature and can have the same effect. Researchers from New York State’s Department of Health and the University of Albany recently analyzed 15 years’ worth of data on birth defects and compared those to average daily temperatures and heat wave occurrences; they found that mothers who experienced high temperatures or heat waves during their pregnancy were more likely than the mothers who didn’t to have babies with congenital cataracts. Congenital cataracts are cloudy spots on an infant’s lenses that blur vision and can lead to permanent blindness if not surgically removed. They are considered to be the leading cause of preventable blindness. The mothers of these babies were exposed to high temperatures during weeks four to seven of their pregnancies, which is the most critical period for eye development.
Fix It You don’t have to accept that climate change is inevitable. Here are five easy ways you can do your part to combat climate change.
• Demand organic. The nonprofit Rodale Institute’s 30-year comparison of organic and chemical farming methods found that organic farms use 45 percent less energy (reducing the need for globe-warming fossil fuels) and produce 40 percent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions. Not only that, but organic farms don’t need Roundup, a chemical linked to DNA damage, infertility, and low sperm counts.
• Sign up for a CSA. Community-supported agriculture programs allow you to buy produce directly from a farmer at the start of the growing season, which helps guard against sharp increases in food prices that can make cheap, unhealthy food so attractive. If that’s not an option, try one of these 7 Cheap Ways to Eat Healthy.
• Turn down the thermostat. Yes, it’ll save you energy and keep tons of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, but it’ll also help you lose weight, according to a 2006 study from the International Journal of Obesity. The study was looking at a number of reasons people have become more overweight in the past 30 years, one of which was that the “thermal standard for winter comfort” in U.S. homes was 64ºF in 1923—and 76ºF in 1986. Your metabolism speeds up in the winter to keep you warm, the study said, but when you’re in a constant state of shirt-sleeves comfort, your body’s warming system doesn’t have to work as hard.
• Walk more. Transportation accounts for nearly 30 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions, yet the World Health Organization estimates that 3.2 million deaths from non-communicable diseases, such as heard disease, diabetes, and obesity, could be prevented worldwide if people just led less sedentary lifestyles. Need more convincing? A recent study in the journal Preventive Medicine found that walking just one mile extra every day instead of driving led to weight loss comparable to eating 100 fewer calories per day.
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• Cut down on meat. And save your heart—as well as our air quality. Reducing animal product consumption by 30 psercent could reduce the amount of heart disease by around 15 percent. Also, agriculture contributes to 12 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions, many of which come from raising animals. Not only do animals produce methane (a potent greenhouse gas), but raising them also usually means cutting down trees to create more land for them to breathe. Deforestation accounts for 30 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions.