…and How We Can Save Ourselves
Linda Marsa’s new book, Fevered, focuses on the public health implications of climate change. It is a wake-up call about how the changing climate is already affecting people’s lives and how much worse it’s going to get. By focusing on the Western world and primarily the United States, Marsa is trying to send the message that climate change “is not something that is going to happen in 20-30 years. It’s going to affect you. I wanted people to wake up.”
Marsa makes climate change personal. She explains how it “could lead to the collapse of our normally well-functioning public health system.”
For instance, the author describes the outbreak of dengue fever – an infectious disease once thought to exist only in the tropics – in towns along the Texas-Mexico border. In 2005, doctors diagnosed a patient in Brownsville, Texas, with dengue hemorrhagic fever. This event prompted health officials to research the extent of dengue infections. They found that nearly 1,300 people were infected by dengue fever at the peak of the outbreak.
Of all the public health risks that climate change will exacerbate, one often overlooked is the role of CO2 in trapping other pollution. In cities, where CO2 levels can reach up to 600 parts per million (compared to the global average of 400 ppm), CO2 acts as a “carbon canopy,” preventing health-damaging pollutants from escaping. A Stanford University study found that these “domes” might be responsible for up to 1,000 additional deaths from respiratory diseases every year. Moreover, increasing temperatures and the resulting increase in ozone levels, also increase the presence of respiratory diseases. For every 2°F increase in temperature, respiratory-related hospitalizations increase by 4.5 percent.
That’s why Marsa calls climate change a threat multiplier. It doesn’t create new problems. It makes existing problems worse. We’ve always had hurricanes and heat waves, but climate change will make them hurt more.
Fevered came up a little short in offering solutions. Marsa writes that we need a “Medical Marshall Plan” to reinvigorate our public health system and increase our resiliency to the effects of climate change. But the book doesn’t illustrate how more funding for the Center for Disease Control will help us cope with the threats that she describes. One reason that people are not motivated to support climate change action more enthusiastically is that there is a feeling that climate change is inevitable and the situation is hopeless. The book would have been better served if the author had brought to life the possibilities of a resilient health system with the same vividness that she describes the scariest threats from climate change. The solutions she proposes are also limited to adaptation strategies – there’s little mention of how we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Marsa is most optimistic about how local governmental and civic institutions have responded to threats. Even in conservative areas of the country, local leaders recognize that adaptation to climate change is an imperative. Orange County, for example, has become a world leader in water management as they attempt to adapt to the desiccation of the Southwest. Considering that the U.S. government can’t even keep itself open, it’s no surprise that Marsa and others are looking to local institutions to pick up the slack. Whether or not these communities can respond at the scale necessary to mitigate the impacts of climate change is unclear.
Fevered is well researched and easy to read. More importantly, it focuses on a dimension of climate change that has been under-reported. Hopefully the public health angle of the book will draw attention to climate change among new audiences.