Are rising temperatures making you sick?

This blog was written by Jennifer Rennicks, former Senior Director of Policy & Communications at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and Seandra Rawls.

Guest Blog | June 7, 2011 | Climate Change, Energy Policy

North Carolina may be among the states that suffer the most from worsening ozone pollution due to climate change-induced temperature increases by 2020, according to a peer-reviewed report released last week by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)

The report, “Climate Change and Your Health: Rising Temperatures, Worsening Ozone Pollution,” used the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Environmental Benefits Mapping model to demonstrate a clear link between rising temperatures and worsening ground-level ozone pollution, which threatens public health and would have a substantial impact on our economy.

In fact, in 2020, the U.S. as a whole could pay approximately $5.4 billion in health-related costs associated with climate change-induced ozone increases. Here in North Carolina, we could see almost 103,000 additional cases of serious respiratory illnesses and roughly $209 million (in 2008 dollars) in additional health costs in a single year (2020). Their finding (shown in the chart below) indicate that the health costs could be as high as $528 million in 2020 if impacts end up being on the high end of the range.

It’s worth noting that impacts won’t be limited to health-care dollars, either: the report finds that higher-levels of ozone could lead to an average of 944,000 more missed school days in 2020, with the total rising to 4.1 million additional missed school days by 2050.

Other states – noted on the chart to the left – will be hard hit by increasing ozone pollution levels, too, based on a combination of factors: high numbers of residents living in urban areas, high percentages of children and seniors in the population, and high levels of nitrogen oxides and VOC emissions from vehicles and power plants.

The science behind ground-level ozone is well understood: a chemical reaction between nitrogen oxide (no2) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) is triggered by heat and sunlight. Higher average temperatures from a warming climate may elevate ozone concentrations in many parts of the country, especially in and around urban areas like Charlotte, NC; Knoxville, TN;  Atlanta, GA; and Miami, FL. It’s these high levels of ground level ozone that cause “bad air quality” days – days when health experts advise children and elderly (particularly those with respiratory illnesses like asthma) to stay inside.

Fortunately, the personal and policy solutions to reduce both ground-level ozone levels and global warming from carbon pollution are well understood, too. By reducing the amount of carbon-based  fuels that are burned in our cars, our factories and our power plants, we can reduce the amount of pollutants that become ground-level ozone. The next step is to encourage our elected leaders to develop policies that incentivize clean energy and energy efficiency and to support the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to set stronger ozone standards to better protect public health as well as strong standards to reduce global warming emissions. Through a combination of these actions, it may be possible to avert the worst of these forecasted health and economic impacts.

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