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Whitehouse urges action on climate change

R.I. senator describes effects of climate change on public health, calls for Congressional action

The United States needs to wake up to the issue of climate change, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse told approximately 75 students, faculty members and community members Monday afternoon.

The crowd gathered in Salomon 101 to hear his lecture after the Public Health Research Day poster session, during which students displayed their research.

Climate change “has a significant effect on our health,” Whitehouse told The Herald. Citing asthma as an example, he explained that warming global temperatures are increasing the duration of the pollen season, thereby increasing risks for asthmatics, as pollen can trigger asthma attacks.

Whitehouse elaborated further on climate change’s consequences for asthmatics during his lecture, which was introduced by both Terrie Fox Wetle, dean of the School of Public Health, and President Christina Paxson.

Paxson explained that Whitehouse gives a speech about climate change every week the Senate is in session, having delivered 64 of these speeches over the past two years. He also travels across the country to spread his message, she said.

“This year’s Public Health Research Day delves into the health and well-being of people here in Rhode Island, across the country and around the world, as it is affected by the unprecedented levels of carbon we have launched into our atmosphere and oceans,” Whitehouse said in his lecture.

Whitehouse described the evidence for and effects of climate change, citing examples such as local scientific studies, state agency farming forecasts and the vulnerability of infrastructure to rising sea levels. “This is the kind of ground truth that can help us cut through the corporate propaganda churned out by polluted interests to obscure the crisis before us,” he said.

Data from the constituents in politicians’ home states may reach those “who readily and comfortably ignore intergovernmental scientific panels and environmental advocacy groups,” he added.

Whitehouse then discussed a variety of examples that show how climate change affects public health. In addition to the lengthier and more intense pollen season brought on by global warming, Whitehouse described the correlation between higher temperatures and algae blooms, which can lead to “red tides.” These red tides decrease oxygen and sunlight levels in water and create toxins. Shellfish may consume these toxins, which then poison humans who eat the shellfish, he said.

Whitehouse also explained that warming temperatures extend the season during which parasite-carrying bugs like mosquitos threaten humans.  “With longer summers and shorter winters, we’ll face more exposure to these pests and the diseases they carry,” Whitehouse said. He added that this issue is already affecting forests in the western United States, where pine beetles are parasitic to their trees.

Higher temperatures also mean higher sea levels, which have already destroyed homes in places like South Kingstown, Whitehouse said.

Climate change also increases the probability of extreme weather, such as tropical storms and heat waves, both of which are major threats to public health and safety, Whitehouse added.

He also noted that health consequences may instigate conflict, and in that way climate change threatens security. A shortage of resources like food and space may cause competition, which can lead to conflicts such as civil wars, he explained.

“The health consequences around the world will actually be graver than at home, grave enough to lead to dislocation and conflict in less wealthy and resilient societies,” Whitehouse said.

Whitehouse quoted Secretary of State John Kerry, who has described climate change as a weapon of mass destruction: “Climate change, if left unchecked, will wipe out many more communities from the face of the Earth.”

Whitehouse finished his lecture with a call for action. “Congress is asleep, and it is time for Congress to wake up.”

“We have a responsibility here that relates to more than just the chemistry and the physics of climate change. … This is our responsibility. It is our generation’s responsibility. Indeed it’s more than that — it’s our duty, so it is indeed time to wake up,” Whitehouse added, concluding the lecture and opening the floor for questions.

“It was refreshing to see how much our senator is passionate” about climate change and health, said Melissa Clark, professor of epidemiology and obstetrics and gynecology, who attended the lecture.

While introducing the lecture, Wetle noted that the relationship between health and the environment — this year’s theme for Public Health Research Day — is “increasingly evident.”

Wetle, an organizer for Public Health Research Day, told The Herald that preparations for the event began eight months ago. Approximately 75 people, including both undergraduate and graduate students, applied to present at the poster session, and about 50 were accepted,Wetle said. The organizers accepted more than originally planned because of the large number of entries, she added.



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