Climate, Health and Equity Brief
Raging infernos, crippling drought and weakened immunity
August 24, 2021
The Climate, Health & Equity Brief is GMMB’s take on the week’s news on the current impacts of climate change. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do so by clicking here.
Hot Topic: Hell on Earth. The American West is currently under siege, facing a range of nightmarish scenarios that are bringing the impacts of climate change into stark relief for tens of millions of people.
First, drought. Ninety (90) percent of the U.S. West is currently in drought, with conditions considered “severe” or “exceptional” in about half of the region, resulting in shrinking water supplies, devastated crops, desertified grazing lands and rapidly accelerating wildfires. While recent monsoons have provided some short-term relief in Arizona and New Mexico, Meteorologists at NOAA have issued the dire prediction that exceptionally dry conditions will last through late fall or even longer in most western states.
Next, wildfires. More than 41,000 fires have burned 4.5 million acres across the U.S. so far in 2021—and wildfire season doesn’t peak until October. There are 99 large fires currently burning across 12 states, only six of which are contained. More than 2.5 million acres are ablaze as you read this newsletter, with more than 26,000 firefighters deployed, many of whom are reporting fire speed and ferocity the likes of which they have never seen. Smoke from the fires is drastically reducing air quality, with readings from ‘unhealthy’ to ‘hazardous’ choking large swaths of California. In addition to scorching the earth and razing entire towns, a new study blames wildfires for nearly 20,000 cases and 748 deaths to COVID-19 in 2020, as the fine particulate matter in wildfire smoke has been closely associated with a lowered immune response to respiratory disease.
And finally, water shortages. In a historic first, the U.S. government has declared a water shortage on the Colorado River. Experts predict that Lake Mead—the river’s largest reservoir that provides water to 25 million people—will dwindle to just 34 percent capacity by December. Beginning next year, Arizona will receive about 18 percent less water from the Colorado River than in a typical year, and Nevada’s water allowance will be reduced by about 7 percent. Farmers and crops will bear most of the initial burden, with 30 percent of the farmland in one Arizona County expected to be left unplanted next year, drastically impacting farmer livelihoods and potentially contributing to shortages and a spike in prices.
And of course, these devastating impacts are not limited to the American West. NOAA reports that July 2021 was the hottest month on record globally in 142 years of record keeping, and a new Lancet study has found that deaths attributable to extreme heat have increased by 74 percent since 1980 worldwide, with causes ranging from heart failure and respiratory issues to suicide, drowning and homicides.
Yet despite these deafening alarm bells, climate change somehow continues to be a partisan issue. Many Congressional Republicans remain steadfastly opposed to emissions reduction efforts, claiming that a clean energy transition will harm the economy. We fear that without a livable planet, there will one day be no economy left to save.
— Matt & Traci, GMMB
For the first time in history, officials have declared a water shortage on the Colorado River, with central Arizona farmers set to face the initial brunt of reductions and larger cuts that are expected to affect tens of millions of people in the West in the years to come. (The New York Times)
With more than a month to go before California’s fire season hits its traditional October peak, one million acres have already burned due to extremely dry conditions and strong winds, with blazes incinerating hundreds of homes and forcing at least 10,000 residents to evacuate. (The Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle)
A new study found that exposure to wildfire smoke—which weakens immune response systems and increases susceptibility to respiratory disease—was associated with nearly 20,000 cases of COVID-19—including 748 deaths—in California, Oregon and Washington last year. (Grist)
In the midst of sweltering heat waves, intense droughts and devastating wildfires around the world, a new NOAA report revealed that the month of July was Earth’s hottest month in 142 years of records. (AP News)
With at least 90 percent of the Western U.S. currently facing severe drought, a new NOAA forecast offers little hope, projecting that above-average temperatures will cause dry conditions to continue at least well into the fall. (The New York Times)
A new study revealed that up to 84 percent of oil wells in West Texas are burning off methane—a greenhouse gas with 80 times climate-warming power in the short term than CO2—without required permits, with nearly 230 unpermitted flares detected in 2020. (Reuters)
California, folks, is America fast forward. What we are experiencing right here is coming to (communities) all across the U.S…”
-California Governor Gavin Newsom
While the $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed in the Senate last week includes an impressive amount of climate funding, environmental justice advocates warn that the elements of the bill will curtail the ability of vulnerable communities to weigh in on potential environmental impacts from projects. (The Washington Post)
Indigenous activists and health professionals in St. Paul, Minnesota are protesting the construction of the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline project, which would transport carcinogenic burning tar sands oil through the Mississippi River. (Indian Country News)
A federal judge in Alaska has rejected the Trump-era permit granted to a controversial ConocoPhillips oil project which would have harmed the water supply of Indigenous communities in the state. (The Washington Post)
Politics & Economy
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization warns that global food prices have risen by 31 percent in the past year, with supply shortages and disruptions caused by extreme weather and drought among the most significant drivers. (CNN)
FEMA announced that its National Flood Insurance Program will undergo a complete overhaul in October to ensure more equitable and accurate pricing that will now factor in future catastrophic modeling from climate change, including sea-level rise, drought and wildfires. (CNBC)
Recent extreme weather events are pushing some Congressional Republicans to acknowledge that climate change is fueled by human activity, yet many remain opposed to emissions reduction efforts, claiming that a clean energy transition will harm the economy. (The New York Times)
A new National EV Charging Initiative signed by 24 organizations and trade associations will forge public-private partnerships to rapidly accelerate the deployment of electric vehicle charging stations and related infrastructure nationwide. (Axios)
Take this short Washington Post quiz to test your knowledge of our warming planet and recent heatwaves.
The GMMB Climate, Health & Equity Brief would not be possible without the contributions of the larger GMMB California team—Aaron Benavides, Elke Cortes, Stefana Simonetto and Sydney Lykins. Feedback on the Brief is welcome and encouraged and should be sent to CHandEBrief@gmmb.com.