Report: 1.8M Metro residents’ health threatened by climate crisis

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Wildfire smoke affects the color of the sky as the sun sets over Oregon City, August 12, 2021 (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A new report from Portland-Metro counties showed how climate change is negatively impacting the health of the region’s 1.8 million residents.

In early November, Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas Counties released their second Regional Climate and Health Monitoring Report. Using data from 2010 to 2021, the report was funded by a grant from the National. Association of County and City Health Officials with support from the CDC.

According to a Multnomah County press release, extreme weather and climate events, such as the wildfires, are likely to become increasingly common with rising emissions.

In the four weeks after 2020’s wildfires, asthma-related emergency room visits increased by nearly one-third, according to the report.

“As public health workers, we are trained to get to the root cause of poor health. When we’re talking about climate change, there are two things we need to do to protect health: stop using fossil fuels and strengthen our infrastructure to withstand the hazards we’re already beginning to experience,” Multnomah County Healthy Homes and Communities Supervisor Brendon Haggerty said.

Haggerty noted that the metro area’s three biggest emergencies — 2020 wildfires, 2021 ice storm and power outage, and this summer’s heat dome — in the past 10 months are linked to the climate crisis.

In a press release, Multnomah County officials stated that as of July 2021, the tri-county region reported 81 heat-related deaths from June’s heat dome.

Washington County Senior Program Coordinator Kathleen Johnson, who contributed to the report, emphasized how these climate-related emergencies disproportionately impact seniors, BIPOC communities, and those with disabilities.

“Extreme climate events worsen existing economic and health inequities and disproportionately affect low-income, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other communities of color as well as older people, children, people with underlying health conditions and people with disabilities,” Johnson said.

Multnomah County officials also pointed to The National Climate Assessment which showed that the Pacific Northwest has warmed by approximately 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1990 — contributing to warmer winters, less snowpack, extreme drought, heatwaves and larger wildfires.

The Metro report also shows that the region’s climate impacts follow a global trend as shown by The Lancet Countdown, a collaboration between global academic institutions and the United Nations, which published a 2021 health and climate report.

Similar to Oregon’s summer heat wave, the Lancet report showed a record number of heat-related deaths around the globe among people 65-and-older, soaring to 345,000 deaths in 2019 — an 81 percent increase from the 2000-05 average.

Additionally, the Lancet found that ambient PM2.5 particulate matter pollution, from human sources, contributed to 3.3 million deaths. One-third of these deaths were directly linked to fossil fuel combustion.

Further, the Lancet report indicated between 21 and 37 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions were caused by food systems and agricultural production. 52 percent of global agricultural-based emissions are from cattle production, according to the Lancet.

Extreme drought conditions spanned 19 percent of Earth’s surface during any given month in 2020, and are becoming increasingly frequent as the “five years with the most parts of the planet affected by extreme drought have all occurred since 2015,” according to the Lancet report.

The Lancet also cautioned sea level rise which could increase by 7 feet above current levels in 80 years, as 147 million people currently live in coastal areas within three feet of the sea level.

Multnomah County officials say in order to meet the climate goals outlined by the Paris Agreement, half of global greenhouse gas emissions must decrease within a decade. Climate experts explained that current rates of reduction would take more than 150 years to fully decarbonize.

“Climate change is causing sweeping and irreversible harm to our planet and to our people. To all of us, in fact. It’s affecting everything from the air we breathe, to the safety of our food and water, to the safety of our very homes, as we saw in the devastating fire season of 2020 right here in Clackamas County,” Clackamas County Health Officer Dr. Sarah Present said

The regional climate report also called for experts to measure the impacts climate change poses on mental health. Local health officials and the Oregon Health Authority reportedly attempted to research these ties but found little data that shows mental health impacts over time.

“I’m starting to get more people coming to me with climate concerns, especially young people,” said psychologist Thomas Doherty. “Every therapist in Portland is seeing this. With the fires, smoke and heat last year, it’s right here in our lives. It’s in front of us.”

Currently, no data tracks any links between the climate crisis and mental health, however Oregon’s Student Health Survey records students’ general emotional and mental health. This survey found that a decreasing number of 8th and 11th graders reported having “excellent” or “very good” mental health — instead seeing an uptick in reports of “fair” or “poor” mental health in every county between 2011 and 2019, according to Multnomah County officials.

Doherty said he and all therapists struggle with how to help people cope with the reality of a warming climate — and individuals’ feelings of helplessness — but also find ways to feel they have agency, and find reasons to hope. 

“You don’t want to sound like Pollyanna. But there is potential for camaraderie, collaboration, hope, reclaiming the future,” he said. “There’s a potential for happiness with the future, a potential for change. I tell people I work with that, ‘your actions do matter. There’s a sense of meaning in your personal actions.’” 

“Every age faces challenges,” he said. “This is ours,” Doherty said.

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