This Climate is Bad For Our Health A review of Changing Planet, Changing Health by Paul Epstein & Dan Ferber

Changing Planet, Changing Health, Credit: Images Improbables, FlickrCC“For more than ten thousand years, the planet’s climate has been relatively stable,” write Paul R. Epstein and Dan Ferber in Changing Planet, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do about It (University of California Press, $30). But that’s not the case anymore. Now, the planet has clearly warmed for a myriad of reasons that include burning fossil fuels and clear-cutting forests. Epstein, who has worked for decades as a physician in low-income areas from Mozambique to Boston, understands intimately what happens when preventable health threats are left unaddressed. And in the case of climate, he knows those threats are real and happening now. Ferber—an award-winning science journalist—helps guide this cautionary tale, beginning in Mozambique. There, in the late 1970s, Epstein and his wife, nurse Adrienne Epstein, witnessed the sudden outbreak of a cholera epidemic that quickly overwhelmed their meager medical resources; a disease that had long been dormant across the rest of the world.

Epstein and Ferber’s book helps explain why the planet has given rise to 40 new diseases since 1976—including HIV/AIDS and Ebola and the re-emerged cholera. Looking at just one disease—cholera—researcher Rita Colwell found that a tiny form of the bacterium V. cholerae, which causes cholera, existed in a dormant state in oceans and estuaries the world over. “When seawater warmed and its nitrogen and phosphorus levels were heightened,” they write, “dormant cholera bacteria emerged from hibernation and became infectious.” The result in 1991 was a cholera epidemic across Peru, one that left half a million people in 19 South American countries affected—15,000 of whom died.

And climate change’s impact on health can be felt in the U.S. too, in the steady climb of severe allergy and asthma diseases, exacerbated by higher carbon dioxide levels spurring ragweed to produce more pollen; and shifting ocean temperatures that move massive pollution-containing dust clouds across the globe. Using real-life cases and a historical perspective, Changing Planet, Changing Health makes it clear that the health threats from climate change are here, and need immediate coordinated effort to keep in check.