MORGANTOWN — Flooding is the greatest threat that stems from climate change, says an expert who studies the field. And it poses a threat to water quality and availability in West Virginia.
“This is often absent from our conversations from a day-to-day perspective,” said Nic Zegre, associate professor of forest hydrology at West Virginia University and director of the WVU Mountain Hydrology Laboratory.
It’s one of the many ways people are affected by a warming planet. As the air warms, it holds more water. That means more precipitation, and more extreme and frequent storms. That can lead to water scarcity, flooding and landslides.
“All of the emerging public health issues are related to the balance between air temperature and water,” Zegre said.
Zegre was one of several experts who spoke at “Climate Change and Public Health: Addressing the Growing Crisis,” a daylong lecture series at West Virginia University’s law school Saturday. The event was a joint presentation of the WVU School of Law’s Center for Energy and Sustainable Development, Mid-Atlantic Regional Public Health Training Center and West Virginia Center on Climate Change.
Experts talked about the consequences of climate change, which range from harm to mental health, to how public health agencies across the country are dealing with the crisis.
Climate change, caused by human activity, is at the root of extreme weather and a breakdown of communities around the world. According to the Fourth National Climate Change Assessment published last year, average temperatures have increased by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit across the country since the beginning of the 20th century.
“The impacts of global climate change are already being felt in the United States and are projected to intensify in the future — but the severity of future impacts will depend largely on actions taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the changes that will occur,” the report says.
Monday, the United Nations will bring the world’s top leaders to New York for the 2019 Climate Action Summit. Last week, young people across the world skipped school for a climate strike, demanding that people in charge do better.
Between 1900 and 2016, West Virginia’s mean temperature was 52 degrees. If we reduce global carbon emissions, the mean will be 57 degrees. If we continue, business as usual, the average will be 62 degrees, Zegre said.
Saturday, Zegre asked attendees to raise their hands if they were concerned citizens. All hands went up. He asked if attendees denied climate change was happening. No one raised a hand.
“If we get our act together and we have global consensus on mitigating greenhouse gases then we see less drastic changes, very minimal changes in West Virginia,” Zegre said.
But still, frequent and intense rain adds to an increasing variability. In addition, the country’s infrastructure — bridges, culverts, dams — are based on the last century’s knowledge of climate.
It takes a lot of water to grow food and provide services, Zegre noted. It takes 18 gallons of water to grow an apple. It takes 3,000 gallons of water to make a smartphone, and 264 gallons of water for a gallon of milk. A steak takes about 1,200 gallons of water.
“The take-home of this is regardless of the scenario that we look at, we are headed toward more warming, in a sense, very real implications for West Virginia,” he said.
A lack of water means lack of infrastructure and opportunity. It means brain drain — a term that refers to a large group of people who leave an area for better economic opportunities.
And, experts noted Saturday, climate change has a real effect on human health and access to clean air, drinking water and healthy food. It puts the poor and homeless particularly at risk. Young people, pregnant people and elderly people are also at risk.
“Any human who witnesses environmental degradation and destruction is going to have a mental health impact, and that’s especially true with children,” said Ned Ketyer, a pediatric physician and consultant at the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project.
It’s not just flooding. Heat waves have been more frequent over the years, becoming more intense, with a lengthening heat season, said Shana Udvardy, climate resilience analyst at the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
According to the nonprofit’s 2019 “Killer heat in the United States” report, extreme heat days with a heat index of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit will double by mid-century (between 2036 and 2065), compared to average conditions between 1971 and 2000 if we don’t reduce heat-trapping emissions. The number of days per year above 105 degrees Fahrenheit will quadruple.
Late in the century (2070–2099), days with a heat index above 100 degrees Fahrenheit will quadruple, and there will be nearly eight times as many 105 degree Fahrenheit days per year than it has had historically, if we don’t curb heat-trapping emissions.
This is how that breaks down in Charleston: The city saw about two days per year with a 100 degree Fahrenheit heat index between 1971 and 2000. If nothing changes, the city will see 30 of those days a year between 2036 and 2065, and 62 days at the end of the century.
“Failing to take actions to reduce emissions would lead to a staggering expansion of disastrous heat,” Udvardy said.
So, Zegre asked: “What can you do?”
Udvardy pointed to proposed federal legislation that would impose national occupational safety standards for indoor and outdoor heat. She also pointed to the need to transition away from fossil fuels both in the power and transportation sector.
“Insist that decision makers have our best interests in mind,” Zegre said.