The ecological and health consequences of Trump’s Paris withdrawal

The ecological and health consequences of Trump’s Paris withdrawal

By Luke Vargas   
A Somali refugee displaced by drought and famine. Malkadiida Refugee Camp, Ethiopia. UN Photo / Eskinder Debebe
A Somali refugee displaced by drought and famine. Malkadiida Refugee Camp, Ethiopia. UN Photo / Eskinder Debebe

“Wake” is a weekly foreign policy broadcast produced by Talk Media News and hosted by Luke Vargas from our studio at U.N. Headquarters in New York.

The following is a complete transcript of Episode Ten, “Climate Shocks: Ecology & Health.”

Subscribe to weekly episodes of “Wake” on iTunes or Google Play, and follow the broadcast on Twitter @WakeOnAir.


Luke Vargas: President Trump’s announced withdrawal from the Paris Agreement sent a strong signal about his administration’s priorities; if climate change is occurring, it’s not urgent enough for the U.S. to get worked up about.

But reports from the front lines of ecology, public health, and humanitarian crises are loud and clear: climate change is not something we can wish away.

Today we’ll hear from three experts about how climate change is impacting their work. And we’ll consider ways to address the challenges of an increasingly volatile climate.

Stay with us next, on “Wake.”

Thanks for joining us. We’re coming to you today from United Nations headquarters in New York City for part two of our series on climate shocks.

Last week we talked a lot of politics. We looked at the diplomatic implications of President Trump’s new stance on climate change. We talked to economists about the financial consequences of not taking the disruptive potential of climate change seriously.

If you missed that discussion, we invite you to head to iTunes or Google Play, search for our show and check out Episode Nine.

This week we’re leaving most of the politics behind and looking at how climate change and emissions are impacting human health, humanitarian responses and the American environment, the very blades of grass, the charter oaks and amber waves of grain that are so quintessentially American.

Let’s get straight to it.

Joining us not too far away in Manhattan today is Professor George Thurston, Director of the Program in Exposure Assessment and Human Health Effects at New York University’s Department of Environmental Medicine. George, welcome to the show.

George Thurston: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Luke Vargas: Also with us today from Portland Oregon is Sarah Henley-Shepard a senior adviser for climate change and resilience at Mercy Corps, the international aid group on the ground in more than 40 countries as we speak. Sarah, welcome.

Sarah Henley-Shepard: Good to be here.

Luke Vargas: And last but not least from Tucson, Arizona is Jake Weltzin, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and executive director of the USA National Phenology Network. Phenology, if you didn’t know, is the study of biological phenomena that are connected with climatic conditions. It’s obviously a crucial field of research as we start to see changes around our planet.

Jake, so glad to have you. Welcome to the show.

Jake Weltzin: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Luke Vargas: I want to start by asking each of you basically the same question and I’ll start with you Jake. What are some of the ways that a changing climate is making itself visible in your work. What are some of the most vivid changes that you’ve been observing in the United States?

Jake Weltzin: That’s a that’s a great question. What we’re doing is we’re trying to understand what is the biological the spots what are the what is the response of plants. What is the response of animals? What is the response of humans to to changes in climate?

Of course we have good evidence that the climate is changing becoming more bearable in many ways. And so when we look at the natural world what do we see we see spring coming earlier than ever sometimes the frost timing stays the same and so you end up with lots of agricultural crops or plants in the backyard.

We see changes in the time and when birds are arriving or when fish are moving through streams or when you have reproductive events like baby chicks coming out of out of nest.

A map tracks the start of the spring season across the United States. In 2017 spring arrived at least three weeks early across wide swaths of the country. Courtesy: USA National Phenology Network.
A map tracks the start of the spring season across the United States. In 2017 spring arrived at least three weeks early across wide swaths of the country. Courtesy: USA National Phenology Network.


Luke Vargas: George, turning to you. Earlier springs, I’m sure, impact pollen counts and allergies, and I’m sure asthma. This starts to sound a little bit like your territory in public health. Could you walk us through some of the major public health consequences you’re encountering when you look at pollution and emissions more broadly.

George Thurston: I’m chairman of the Environmental Health Policy Committee for the American Thoracic Society and we have members who are a respiratory physician and scientist and we did a survey that I think is really relevant to this little over a year ago.

Looking at their opinions and experience with climate change and the health and the physicians that we surveyed, 88 percent said that they felt that climate change was happening today, and 87 percent felt it was relevant to their practice and patient care.

And the things that they identified say something: 57 percent said injuries due to severe storms, weather, fires; 77 percent air pollution, increases in air pollution affecting asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumonia and cardiovascular disease. And then what you mentioned, a 58 percent increase in care for allergic sensitization.

And the people they found there were the most affected by these changes that they’ve seen in health care because of climate change. Young children zero to four, older adults 60 and above, and the poor and the working poor.

Luke Vargas: There’s a lot there,  And as you start to look at large scale health consequences and resiliency I think we’ve got to turn to Sarah. How is climate change making its presence known in humanitarian relief operations around the world today?

Sarah Henly-Shepard: Sure. So actually what the other speakers have spoken to is related to humanitarian response, as well as early recovery and sustainable development, all of which Mercy Corps is engaged in comprehensively.

We see climate as a magnifier, and in many cases a multiplier of existing underlying causes of vulnerability and risk.

It can also magnify existing development challenges across systems such that although there is difficult evidence to really link climate change a root cause, it exacerbates root causes of vulnerability such as ecosystem degradation, issues with public health around heat-related illnesses or respiratory illnesses.

As one of the other speakers was discussing, access to sufficient supplies of natural resources for basic needs for shelter, for livelihood, for resilience and security and so forth. So beyond humanitarian response, climate is certainly exacerbating and making a lot of these root causes of vulnerability and degradation more difficult and expediting these negative feedback loops and changes that we’re seeing at a rate that is unprecedented and very difficult to deal with with limited resources and time.

A man collects rainwater from a pond in Harar, Ethiopia. Courtesy: Sean Sheridan / Mercy Corps
A man collects rainwater from a pond in Harar, Ethiopia. Courtesy: Sean Sheridan / Mercy Corps

Luke Vargas: You mentioned, Sarah, ecological degradation as a risk factor here that climate change could magnify and multiply. You know this better than I do but I’m sure we have an understanding, and certain community-level players have an understanding, of where ecological degradation is occurring.

Perhaps you could overlay that information with a weather forecast or a climate model and figure out which regions of the world are especially vulnerable let’s say after a natural disaster. Is that the kind of work you’re doing, and if so, can you identify areas in the U.S. or around the world that are particularly at risk?

Sarah Henly-Shepard: I mean, you have a two-part question, and it’s a question that’s very complex. Just to respond to the second one, Mercy Corps, while it certainly is based on the U.S. – headquarters in Portland Oregon and an office in Washington D.C. – and we do have community work based in the Pacific Northwest, the majority of our operations are in over 40 countries around the world.

So I’m actually going to focus my discussion around a lot of the ecological degradation and other issues of conflict and poverty and food insecurity that we see in those 40 plus countries. Environmental degradation can be  a result of overuse and exploitation by humans which can definitely be driven by lack of access to renewable and clean energy, lack of livelihood opportunities, increased population pressure on the environment, and it can also be driven by natural causes like flood and drought and so forth.

And these types of shorter-term shocks to the system, as well as the long-term trends like a prolonged drought, can also lead to ecological degradation. And the challenge is that most of the world’s poor are highly dependent upon use of natural resources. They are also in turn more susceptible and vulnerable to environmental shocks and degradation which are exacerbated by climate.

So to summarize, it’s very complicated, but there are natural drivers of ecological degradation, as well as human-caused drivers of ecological degradation and the is that climate can exacerbate and make that degradation even worse, which then has significant development and humanitarian response consequences.


Luke Vargas: Jake, you’re looking at the American landscape. What changes are underway now that are concerning to you? And is there ecological degradation occurring in the United States that could rear its head in Sarah’s line of work someday soon?

Jake Weltzin: Sure, I sure do, and one of those is pollination services.

You talk about polination services, what does that mean? That means insects, especially bees, visiting flowers of agricultural crops, things that we need.

There’s huge numbers of foods that we love to eat – almonds and cherries and tomatoes, etc. – that love, that need polination services. And that’s a potential loss where we might end up with a mismatch that might occur between when the pollinators are there and when the flowers need to be polinated so we can have some great crops.

Luke Vargas: George, when it comes to the stuff that we are putting into the air I would imagine you’re seeing progress and setbacks on a whole lot of fronts all at the same time. What are some of the most worrying trends that you are seeing that could cause substantial health consequences down the line?

George Thurston: Right. We’ve made a lot of progress in the developed world, like the United States, in addressing an air pollution problem that was really disastrous back in the 50s and 60s.

And the Clean Air Act addressed that and has brought it down. But we still have a long way to go, there’s still lots of improvement that we can do here in the United States. We have a website called HealthOfTheAir.Org where people can go and put in their zip code and see if the air were cleaner how much would the health effects diminish, if we got cleaner air here in the United States.

So there’s still work left to go. But the really big problem is in the developing world, where things are getting worse and have been getting worse. I was in India in November during this huge pollution episode where the levels reached more than 10 times the levels that we see here in the United States. You know that’s where a lot of the pollution from health effect as well as effecting climate change is occurring.

Really when you look at the things that cause the risk from climate change and the risk from air pollution, you’re looking at one in the same problem, which is largely fossil fuel combustion around the world, especially coal burning.

A report on Los Angeles air pollution from HealthOfTheAir.Org
A report on Los Angeles air pollution from HealthOfTheAir.Org

Luke Vargas: Sarah, what is concerning to you as you look to the future?

In my reading I’ve seen historical examples of populations faced with changes in their climates, and they cope with that by moving. In this world in which we already have a refugee crisis, I don’t know how viable an option that is for certain communities. Is that something of concern looking to the future?

Sarah Henly-Stewart: So migration of people, and their associated resources like livestock, is a livelihood strategy. It can either be something that is pushed by opportunities in a different place, or it can be to escape something negative like like one of the four famines that we’re starting to see rise in Africa.

And so although migration could be seen as a negative thing, it has historically – even within America – e very day is used as a strategy to find other jobs, to avoid conflict or strife and to try to find a better life.

And so being able to work with populations to understand what negative drivers are pushing them away from their homes – a decision that’s very difficult to make for and for any of us – it’s important to understand so that we can address those root causes of negative migration, root causes that are making their livelihoods unsustainable, their their homes no longer safe.

And if they do need to migrate ensuring that that migration process is safe and equitable and that the communities that are receiving them are able to also have their basic needs met but that they can also receive these migrants in a safe space and a respectful place. And so within many of the countries that we work communities are facing multiple issues that are making it difficult for them to survive and thrive.

And so understanding those terms and understanding what we can do as a humanitarian response and development agency to improve livelihood resilience, improve peace-building and conflict reduction and access to education and basic development is really critical to reducing the need to migrate. But if there are places that are no longer habitable or safe and migration is the only means for people to survive and thrive, supporting them throughout that process, in the best way possible is something that we have to do.

Luke Vargas: This is the only time I’m going to do this today, but I’d like to play a portion of President Trump’s speech announcing the U.S. pullout from the Paris agreement. Here he was in the White House Rose Garden on June 1st:

Under the agreement China will be able to increase these emissions by a staggering number of years, 13. They can do whatever they want for 13 years. Not us! T here are many other examples, but the bottom line is that the Paris accord is very unfair at the highest level to the United States.

Luke Vargas: Okay, the president there was talking about emissions. He elaborated on this in other parts of the speech, but his anger seems to be that if a faraway country doesn’t clean up their act first, that it doesn’t even matter what we do.

So George, I want to tie this into your work. You mentioned people being affected by air pollution right now. Are we going to need to wait for India and China to stop polluting to see health benefits in the United States? Or is there work we can do right now to improve American lives?

An air quality index map from the Environmental Protection Agency.
An air quality index map from the Environmental Protection Agency.

George Thurston: We absolutely don’t have to wait for others to take action. And as the survey I quoted before shows, there already are health impacts occurring. This is not something in the future from climate change; physicians are already seeing it.

And the benefits of taking action are local. If you reduce fossil fuel pollution, for example, then you’re going to get cleaner air and those cleaner air benefits go to the communities and cities and states that do the clean up.

So we can move forward with this and get the clean air benefits at the same time, [and] also contribute to solving, or at least reducing, the problem of climate change.

Luke Vargas: George, I think there’s a power in pollution because it’s visible.

I’m aware that public opinion surveys around the world have asked people whether they care about climate change, and in some spots it is an issue that doesn’t get much of an answer, not because climate change is a partisan issue like it is in the United States, but because maybe it’s too abstract.

But then you ask those same people about pollution and they get up in arms, and as a result they start demanding policy action to end pollution, and that happens to be the same policy action you’d pursue to combat climate change. So I’m curious if that’s something you’ve encountered.

A map shows air quality readings from U.S. Embassies around the world.
A map shows air quality readings from U.S. Embassies around the world.

Does it worry you that people maybe need to see certain things in order to take them seriously? And if so, doesn’t that bode poorly for our global chances of addressing climate change?

George Thurston: It’s human nature, really, to discount things that you see as distant in time or place; you’re really focused on the here and now. And that is, I think, the quandary that’s there for trying to talk about a future event that’s the worst part of climate change that we should avoid something in the future.

We may be on the Titanic, but the iceberg is pretty far away still. And so people are really more focused on staying afloat at the moment.

And I think that’s where the air pollution concept comes in, because if we do the right thing for climate we’ll also get these immediate air pollution benefits, reducing air pollution. The people who do it get the benefits and those benefits are more valuable when you do the monetization of these things – how much health benefit there is. It far outweighs the cost. So it’s really just common sense.

I think if we look at doing the things that give us cleaner air and also avoid climate change that’s probably the sweet spot in terms of trying to get people motivated and taking action on their own. So you don’t really need a national program. Every community, every city, every state can do their own program and get their own benefits and also save the planet.

Luke Vargas: Jake, a similar question to you. You mentioned early springs, more pollen dusting our homes and our cars earlier in the season, and that sounds like something I’ve seen. But at the same time it can be easy to discount our own memory and relate our observations to trends that we might hear about in the news. What do you think about that phenomena?

Jake Weltzin: Sure. We’re working against what we call a shifting baseline, where each year things might be changing around us. But it’s sort of hard to keep track of that necessarily.

So what I’m doing with my project is helping people actually record information about the changes that they’re seeing in their backyard. So are they seeing changes in when they might plant their garden? Or when they saw the first cardinal in the spring, or the first monarch butterfly arrive across their backyard, or things like the tick or mosquito when it came out.

And so if we can capture those observations in a formal structure that we can use to compare through time or compare from one city or one county to the next over time, we can start to get a handle on what’s going on locally within the context of changes or variation at the national or even the global scale.

The Nature's Notebook program allows individuals to record information about their local environment. Millions of observations are then gathered together for use in scientific discovery and decision-making. Courtesy: USA National Phenology Network
The Nature’s Notebook program allows individuals to record information about their local environment. Millions of observations are then gathered together for use in scientific discovery and decision-making. Courtesy: USA National Phenology Network

Luke Vargas: Sarah, how are you helping to convince policy planners – let’s say governments or emergency responders – to take a candid look at their the risks that their communities face because of climate change?

I wonder if this is a challenge that George and Jake experience differently than you, because in the humanitarian response field budgets are already set aside for emergency response or humanitarian groups have a sense of where their aid might need to go. So maybe it’s easier for you to make a case that it’s simply cost-effective to factor in climate risks. What has your experience been on that?

Sarah Henly-Shepard: So a bit counter to one of the points that was raised, I would just like to speak to the fact that many communities do not actually have the capacity – resources, training, time, political connections and other related opportunities – to address climate change impacts like the sea level, seeing more frequent and more extreme storms, seeing landscapes change in ways that they’ve never experienced, dealing with with heat or cold like they’ve never experienced.

They are often unable to be able to deal with these huge global issues that are affecting their communities on their own. And this goes for communities from Texas to Alaska to New York, as well as the communities where we work in throughout the globe. And so I would just like to argue that even though there is funding through the U.S. and other national governments, there’s not enough funding to really meet this growing demand.

And there are four famines currently in Africa. There are tens to hundreds of millions of people at risk of starvation. They’re already facing extreme challenges with basic development, basic access to services. These are issues that could have been prevented, [and] there are certainly issues that have been exacerbated by climate change and drought and heat and so forth.

So I would actually like to say that if we reduce our funding, and in fact if we don’t increase our funding, to support with poverty alleviation, social capital building and creating social safety net and moving people from the U.S. and across the globe to a better state of development and education and increasing their access to basic services, we will actually undo decades of significant amounts of resources from the U.S. and other governments of incredible thought leadership and support and sacrifice to try to make the world a more safe and sustainable place.

And so although there is funding, again, there’s not enough to really meet the demand demand that’s growing because climate is exacerbating a lot of these drivers of inequality and conflict and degradation and human suffering.

The aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in a Haitian village. Courtesy: Sean Sheridan / Mercy Corps
The aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in a Haitian village. Courtesy: Sean Sheridan / Mercy Corps

Luke Vargas: When we booked this show I will be the first to admit that I did not see all of the connections between the work that each of you is doing. But I’m starting to see those connections now. So I’ll put a final question on the table for each of you, and Jake, I guess I’ll start with you.

There is a hyper-partisan tenor to the discourse about climate change in the United States, which seems very different than the way that conversation occurs elsewhere around the world. And there’s a pattern that I’ve seen in which people who do not believe in the scientific consensus on climate change jump upon the mere notion of uncertainty in any specific element of climate change and they interpret any admission of some element of that research not being entirely locked down as fact as proof that the people researching this issue have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. But ask a scientist and they will tell you that’s not the case, that awareness about where there are unanswered questions is a strength of scientists, and that every time we make discoveries we’re also becoming more aware of the things we’ve yet to find out.

So a big question here at the end: if you had all the research funding in the world and there were 48 hours in every day and you could go and collaborate with anyone you want around the world what are you burning to find out? If there something about this issue of a changing climate that is calling out for you to investigate, what is that question?

Jake Weltzin: Sure. That’s an excellent question, and one that we as scientists don’t often get asked to answer because oftentimes that kind of research takes resources, money.

But I think the place we’re missing information is in that intermediate term, what’s going to happen in the next three months, the next six months or the next 12 months so that we can make better decisions about how do we position our firefighting equipment out in the western forest? How do we control the timing of how we manage bridges, when the Mayflies might come out early in the year. How do we how do we plant the right kind of crops that can be resistant or resilient to invasive species or disease, or even things like frost?

So really what we need is intermediate term information. We have good weather forecasts that go out five, six, seven days – of course, sometimes they’re not always right. We have longer term climate forecasts that go out 10 to 20 or 30 or 40 years or so, but we don’t have that intermediate term.

What we need is we need three, six or 12-month forecasts of weather so that we can position ourselves to be able to ensure our security food security and human health.

Luke Vargas: George, the same question to you does anything spring to mind?

George Thurston: I would say that I agree that the science on climate change is sound.

I studied meteorology at MIT under Ed Lorenz, who was the father of chaos theory and also was the person that came up with the butterfly theory that small perturbation can have large effects, and so my focus would really be on knowing that climate change is a threat – an ongoing threat that’s happening now, [that] we need literate leadership to address it and [that] it’s going to get worse in the future – to look at the options that we have for addressing it, and to try and evaluate where can we get the greatest public health benefits while we’re addressing it.

You can reduce methane, you can reduce CO2, you can reduce carbon, and you can do it in different ways. CO2 you can remove from the air by filtering it out and taking it out, but that wouldn’t help in terms of pollution from the original source like coal burning. So I think what I would like to see is that we try and optimize the approaches that we can take to get the maximum public health benefit, and that in turn will help motivate people to actually do these things, if they realize it’s going to help them help the health of themselves and their children and their grandchildren, and also improve the climate.

A Ugandan farmers harvests a chia crop, a plant easier to grow and harvest than other traditional seeds. Courtesy: Corinna Robbins / Mercy Corps
A Ugandan farmers harvests a chia crop, a plant easier to grow and harvest than other traditional seeds. Courtesy: Corinna Robbins / Mercy Corps

Luke Vargas: Sarah, any parting thoughts?

Sarah Henly-Shepard: Sure. I have two points. One is that we’re really, as Mercy Corps, trying to understand – given the rate and degree of change and the environments and communities that we’re seeing around the world – how can we really build resilience and sustainable development and support communities ability to deal with these different climate and weather related shocks, conflict and poverty in extremely fragile state.

Beyond just the science of climate change and those types of impacts, there’s a lot of challenges with doing really sound adaptive programming informed by research in places that are highly prone to conflict and violence, which is exacerbated by climate change. And so it’s not a space that a lot of international non-governmental organizations are working on, and so there’s a lot of opportunity to try to build that evidence base.

And then my final thought is really to raise a point of hope. I’m hoping that the evidence that we’re building with our 5,000 staff and with our partners around the world can try to help people at national governments around the world to politicize this issue and move beyond it, to build a collective consensus and a collective good to address this collective threat.

It’s very hard to move beyond where we are as far as funding and political and community support without this stronger sense of solidarity international consensus. And the sense of urgency is real, and communities throughout the U.S. and the world are dealing with these issues every day around climate change impacts.

So I’m just hoping that we can try to find a way to cultivate that sense of international community and consensus, because this is an issue that faces us and future generations.

Luke Vargas: We’re short on time so I’ll go right down the line. Sarah Henly-Shepherd, senior advisor for climate change and resilience at Mercy Corps, George Thurston at New York University’s Department of Environmental Medicine and Jake Weltzin, executive director of the USA National Phenology network. So glad to have each of you with us. Thanks again.

Sarah Henly-Shepard: My pleasure, thank you.

George Thurston: You’re welcome. Glad to be here.

Jake Weltzin: Thank you for the opportunity.

Luke Vargas: If you like what you just heard leave us a review on iTunes or follow the program on Twitter @WakeOnAir.

I’m Luke Vargas, signing off. Join us again next week on Wake.

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