President Donald Trump’s sweeping move this week to dismantle US regulations aimed at mitigating climate change will put millions of people at risk from respiratory illnesses, according to a senior Australian environmental scientist.
Paul Beggs from the department of environmental sciences at Macquarie University says the warming of the earth’s atmosphere not only increases carbon dioxide burdens but also increases the length and severity of pollen seasons for flowering plants.
The effect of this is to increase allergen exposure for people with hay fever and asthma, potentially creating serious health problems.
In November 2016 a rare “thunderstorm asthma” event occurred in Melbourne, Australia, wherein moisture and sudden temperature change caused a heavy rye grass pollen load to explode into trillions of micro-particles.
The result was a mass outbreak of breathing difficulties, particularly among people with hay fever. Emergency services were overwhelmed, more than 8500 people reported to hospital emergency departments, and eight people died.
It was by far the largest thunderstorm asthma event recorded anywhere in the world. Health authorities warn that climatic conditions driven by global warming may increase the frequency and severity of such outbreaks.
Beggs says that research has shown that the ragweed pollen season in the US has been increasing over the past several years, increasing risks for people susceptible to allergy and asthma.
“This threatens the health of many millions of asthma and hay fever sufferers in countries such as the US,” he says.
He adds that the Melbourne tragedy “clearly highlighted, our weather, our climate, and the allergens that are suspended in our atmospheric environment can all interact to rapidly and unpredictably overwhelm asthma and hay fever sufferers with severe symptoms as well as the emergency services and health and medical services that care for them.
“Put simply, climate change is making it harder for us to breathe.”
Reacting to the Trump executive order – which seeks to encourage coal industry development – a number of experts point out the likely effect would contravene the Paris Climate Agreement.
Christian Downie, senior climate researcher at the University of New South Wales, says any effort to save the coal industry is doomed.
“The coal industry in the US is dying not because of politics but because of economics,” he says.
“Putting aside the enormous greenhouse gas emissions from coal, it progressively can no longer compete against alternative sources of energy, including cheap gas, but increasingly even cheaper wind and solar power.”
Marine biologist Tullio Rossi says the president’s pledge to protect jobs rings hollow, because global warming is already sending many industries into decline.
“This executive order goes against the commitments of the Paris Agreement, science and common sense,” he says. “It might generate a few jobs in the coal industry in the short term but it completely ignores longer terms impacts. It is well known to science that climate change damages the economy.”
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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