In Boston, climate change forum gets personal

Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy (left) speaks with Rebecca Herst (right), Director of Sustainable Solutions Lab at a forum on climate change's effect, Friday, Sept. 20, Boston, Mass. Photo by Anastasia E. Lennon/BU News Service

BOSTON — Millions of people took to the streets worldwide Friday to demand action on climate change. In Boston, strikers gathered at city hall and marched to the State House with signs. Some placards called for the proposed Green New Deal and policy change. Others depicted a sick Earth melting like the scoop on an ice cream cone or running a fever with a thermometer in its anthropomorphized mouth. There were few, if any, signs on another issue that climate change threatens: our health.

Climate change is a public health problem, said Gina McCarthy, former head of the EPA during the Obama administration. McCarthy appeared as keynote speaker at UMass-Boston’s latest forum on climate adaptation and is director of Harvard’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment.

“If we wanted to convince people to change, we had to tell them why it mattered to them,” said McCarthy on her past environmental work in Massachusetts. “Health is why it matters. Health is the most important motivator I have ever found to move on issues that are difficult, issues that look for sacrifice.”

With an increase in the number of extreme heat days, humans are more vulnerable to conditions such as asthma and heat stroke. Warmer temperatures can increase the amount of pollen production of plants, as well as lengthen pollen seasons, according to a 2014 study in European Respiratory Review.

In Massachusetts, there has been a “huge spike” in emergency room visits and admissions for asthma, said Dr. Adrienne Hollis, a climate justice analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists. The current asthma rate in the state exceeds the national rate.

In the state’s 8th District, which includes Quincy and Weymouth, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates 41 days of temperatures above 90 degrees, 15 days above 100 degrees, and seven days above 105 degrees. Historically, Massachusetts reached a heat index above 100 just once.

“With possible heat waves on the horizon, the risk of heat-related health problems may also be on the upsurge,” wrote Ruth Jones, commissioner of the Quincy Health Department, in an article for the department.

Some people are more at risk than others, including the elderly and people who live in homes without air conditioning. The latter highlights another compounding health problem: old buildings in a new climate.

Thomas Chase, a project manager for a Boston-based sustainable design company, tested his own home in Cambridge for its indoor heat index. The indoor temperature on the third floor of the 1907 wood-frame building exceeded the extreme danger threshold for 19 days this July. The index peaked at 111 degrees.

“That’s today, that’s what we’re experiencing in units that don’t have air conditioning,” said Chase.

Other measured health effects in non-conditioned units were poorer sleep quality and more self-reported physical ailments, said Chase, citing results from a Harvard School of Public Health study conducted on people living in Cambridge.

In renovated “green” buildings he has assessed, though, Chase has seen reductions in nitrate and nicotine particulates, as well as a decrease in asthma attacks and absences from school.

“We know that green building has positive health outcomes. We know it can make us resilient to climate change,” he said.

New Ecology, the nonprofit he works for, has partnered with the state Division of Housing and Community Development to assess more than 7,000 buildings throughout the state, some of which are senior housing.

This climate hazard adaptation and resilience plan considers sea level rise, precipitation, and temperature increase in determining how to best adapt current structures and build future ones across the state.

It is this innovative, incremental work being done at the state and community level that matters, said McCarthy. She used an example of cooling centers in New York City, as well as a program that pairs senior citizens with young people. When the temperature reaches a certain level, young people will be alerted to check on their local partner.

“That to me is a solution that has so much more benefit,” said McCarthy. “The focus doesn’t need to be the federal government, it needs to be their own home, their own community, their own school, because that’s the only thing that ever changes anything.”

This article was originally published in the Quincy Patriot-Ledger.

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