It’s time to re-frame climate change talk, focus on health, CDC’s Luber says

The good news, George Luber said, is that 70 percent of Americans believe in climate change, compared to 16 percent who don’t.

But it’s time to be “subversive climate champions” and re-frame the dialogue on climate change, said Luber, chief of the Climate and Health Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One of seven speakers at the University of Missouri Life Sciences & Society program’s symposium, Confronting Climate Change, Luber talked March 19 about the correlation between changes in the climate and health concerns like allergies, heat waves, Lyme disease and even mental health.

Since 1895, when temperature data started being recorded, the average temperature in the country has risen by at least one degree Fahrenheit, according to a 2014 report from the National Climate Assessment. In the Midwest, the average temperature has risen by more than 1.5 degrees.

Courtesy: 2014 National Climate Assessment,

With rising temperatures come warmer days, and during the summer that means the possibility of heatwaves. In the summer of 2012, St. Louis recorded 24 consecutive days of temperatures higher than 90 degrees Fahrenheit, which was the second hottest year on record for the city.

But, Luber said, St. Louis is “very prepared” for heat waves. As of August 2015, there were 42 cooling centers in the St. Louis area. Cooling centers are public, air-conditioned locations offering cold water during days when the heat index is expected to reach 105 degrees.

Between 2000 and 2013, there were 358 heat-related deaths recorded in Missouri, mostly in the urban centers of St. Louis, St. Louis County and Jackson County.

Without having done any research in Missouri, Luber could not say what specific effects of climate change Missourians might see. But potential concerns for the state include wildfire smoke from the Rockies, which would deplete air quality; heat waves; heavy rainfall events, which could affect water quality and increase the likelihood of water-borne diseases; unusual rainfall, which could lead to flooding of the state’s rivers; and drought.

“But which are the more probable, I couldn’t tell you,” Luber said.

Luber said he wants to shift the conversation about those most affected by climate change from polar bears to the most vulnerable parts of the human population — children and the elderly.

“It’s about people, Luber said. “We have evidence to show that ones most vulnerable in our communities are currently experiencing these health impacts, then perhaps we personalize this issue and make it more important to people.”

One of the key health threats related to climate change Luber outlined was the emergence of novel threats, like ciguatera fish poisoning, which is expensive to test in humans, and an expanded range of Lyme disease. Lyme disease, Luber said, could be “our newest export to Canada.”

The CDC’s Climate and Health Program has been around since 2009, and it has been working since then to ensure “systems are in place to detect and respond to emerging health threats.” Part of that involves reframing the dialogue on climate change to how people can benefit from addressing it.

“In New Mexico, someone said to me that it’s hubris to think man can change the climate,” Luber said. “It’s not hubris to think we can alter the earth’s atmosphere, because we already have. The question is can we handle it.”

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