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Montanans’ health interwoven with climate change

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A newly released report says that increased wildfires, drought and other effects of climate change will impact Montanans' health--some more than others. PHOTO BY VLADYSLAV DUKHIN

Collaborative climate report indicates health risks climate change poses to Montanans

By Bella Butler EBS STAFF

BOZEMAN—Air thick with wildfire smoke, devastating droughts and other extreme weather events will continue to strike Montana, says a collaborative report composed by health professionals, researchers and professors from across the state. Moving forward, the dilating climate drama will only continue to infringe on the health and wellbeing of Montanans.

The Climate Change and Human Health in Montana report, known by its seven authors as C2H2, was released on Dec. 8 as a follow-up to the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment. While the 2017 report outlined climate change impacts to agriculture, forests and water in Montana, C2H2 focuses on climate change impacts on Montanan’s physical and mental health.

The report, dubbed C2H2, was a collaboration by the Montana State University Center for American Indian and Rural Health Equity, Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate and the Montana Institute of Ecosystems. C2H2 has seven primary authors. IMAGE COURTESY OF MONTANA STATE UNIVERSITY

“We all know that the effects of climate change are not just in our future,” said C2H2 co-author Alexandra Adams while introducing the report. “They’re here now in the form of wildfires and smoke, flooding and vector borne diseases and already affecting our loved ones and our communities today.”

Following a summer of severe wildfires across the West, C2H2 identifies three aspects of projected climate change that are of greatest concern for human health in Montana: increased summer temperatures and periods of extreme heat; reduced air quality from smoke as wildfires increase in size and frequency; and more “climate surprises,” like flooding and extreme storms.

Under predictions in-line with a 70-year warming trend in Montana, annual average temperatures are estimated to increase by between 4.5-6 degrees by mid-century. Though recent robust snowpacks in the state make it hard to conceive, the report suggests that these high level snowpacks will be rare as a hotter Montana will result in earlier melting and runoff and subsequent flooding. C2H2 states that peak runoff for most headwater streams in Montana now occurs 10-20 days earlier than in 1948, a margin that is only expected to grow.

The calamitous recipe of poor air quality, scarce water supply, extreme heat and other local manifestations of climate change threaten to create health crises, a breed of disaster human society has become all too familiar with in 2020.

The health threats produced by a changing climate report will negatively impact some Montanans disproportionately, C2H2 says. The report recognizes that Montana has unique health concerns due to its rural nature and limited access to healthcare facilities in some areas. Because of this, chronic disease, inadequate maternal and childhood healthcare, a high rate of vehicular deaths, and mental illness, suicide, alcoholism, and substance use disorders are common ailments in Montana.

With these in mind, the C2H2 authors identified groups of people more at-risk in Montana when climate impact is considered: people with chronic conditions like asthma and heart disease, people threatened by increased heat like pregnant women or those without access to shade, people with limited access to healthcare services; and people living in poverty.

In Montana people living on reservations tend to fall in more than one of these high-risk categories. In interviews conducted for C2H2, half of the subjects living on the Fort Belknap Reservation reported being food insecure, a disparity that will likely only exacerbate as drought impacts crop yields. Many that were found to be more food secure reported sourcing food from traditionally harvested plants and animals, much of which will be harder to access due to climate change impacts.

“Our issues are different and bigger and harder,” said John Doyle, a panelist at the press event. Doyle, a member of the Crow Tribe and the Crow water quality project director at Little Bighorn College, said that climate impact stories from his reservation are different from others around the state.

Doyle said the COVID-19 pandemic has only weakened an already impoverished area. The Independent Record reported in July that though Native Americans make up only 7 percent of the state’s population, at the time they accounted for 15 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases.

In addition to physical health, C2H2 articulated the existing and anticipated effects of climate change on mental health. According to the C2H2 report, MSU researchers surveyed farmers and ranchers and found that 74 percent of subjects self-reported moderate to high levels of anxiety regarding climate change effects on agriculture. Using data from 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that agriculture was among the top five industries that saw the most male suicides in the United States.

In other pockets of Montana like Gallatin County, tourism is to local communities what agriculture is to much of rural Montana: economic livelihood.

While C2H2 does not specifically address the mental health concerns for a shrinking snowpack, one of the authors, Robert Byron, said during the press event that it will have a two-fold impact.

“Certainly the mental health applications of both earlier snow melt with spring flooding [and] longer drought—and both of those will go along with lesser snowpack—are huge,” Byron said.

First, C2H2 shares that especially for those with preexisting mental illness, big weather events—like a spring flood—could impact mental health, increasing conditions from post-traumatic stress disorder to depression and anxiety to substance abuse.

Second, Byron said that a longer-term mental health impact of snowpack changes could occur following the implications for a town like Big Sky, which depends on a robust snowpack to stay afloat.

The report is not all doom and gloom, though. In fact, a few chapters at the end are filled with solutions-based content. C2H2 recommends the creation of a statewide public health network that addresses the health and economic impacts of climate change, boosting expertise in adapting to climate change and other general suggestions to help counter the threats outlined in the report.

Mari Eggers, another C2H2 author, said this report will fill ideally fill a gap of local climate and health data. “Both the health and the climate data down to a more local level are going to be essential to be able to plan and prepare for these coming events, and to protect both public health and our economy at the same time,” she said.

The C2H2 report can be found online at montanaclimate.org.

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