I was a kid of the ’70s. I loved The Brady Bunch, the Major Matt Mason action figure, Space Food Sticks snacks, Star Trek — the works. I was also a kid obsessed with the Apollo missions, moon landings and what would come next. From my home in Oklahoma City, I watched hours of television coverage of each launch. I monitored the space vehicles to and from the moon. As a teenager, it was no surprise that the pinup on my wall was Mother Earth. The Apollo 17 crew took the iconic snapshot on Dec. 7, 1972, from some 28,000 miles away.
It’s probably not a coincidence that around that time, humanity also began an annual celebration of Earth on April 22, 1970.
What we did not know on that first Earth Day is now clear: Humans are radically changing our atmosphere, and those changes are altering our climate. We do not know how much the changes will ultimately hurt people, but we do know that the climate changes we’re already seeing are hurting human health. Things will likely get much worse.
Ironically, the very ingenuity and drive enabling us to look back at ourselves from space are, arguably, the things putting us in jeopardy. I hope that human ingenuity and determination also will help us.
The World Health Organization, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, recently released a new Climate and Health Country Profile focused on the United States. This profile is among dozens from countries around the world that compile a host of evidence about our climate and health.
First, some bad news for Oklahoma: Climate change does and will have substantial negative effects on the health of Americans. Full stop.
Between 2001 and 2014, the United States has already witnessed significant spread of insect-borne diseases like Lyme due to earlier seasonal activity of disease-carrying insects. We expect to see significant increases in heat- and cold-related deaths, especially in Oklahoma. Air pollution and resulting respiratory illnesses and deaths will increase. There will be an increase in large fires, particularly in places like Oklahoma. Those fires will increase air pollution, respiratory illnesses and deaths related to those illnesses.
There’s also good news. Efforts to address climate change can improve health and save lives. Mitigating climate change could result in 57,000 fewer deaths per year in the United States that are caused by poor air quality (more than all annual U.S. motor vehicle fatalities), 12,000 fewer deaths from extreme heat and cold and could save 1.2 billion hours of lost work.
Learn about the health impacts of our changing climate and then decide what steps you can take to cultivate a healthy climate for Oklahoma’s future. You could help your community become less reliant on fossil fuels for its energy needs. You could help neighbors understand the risks and prepare. You could help your town become more resilient and sustainable while also helping it be a healthier place to live, work, worship and play.
So, Happy Earth Day! Celebrate. When you’re done, get right back to work protecting your home.
Born and raised in Oklahoma City, Michael Painter, JD, MD, is a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
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