Climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels is especially unhealthy for young children in Montana and will only get worse by mid-century.
That's according to a panel of doctors and scientists who spoke at seminar focused on climate change and human health in Missoula this month.
Paul Smith, the director of pediatric pulmonology at Community Medical Center, said climate change is undoubtedly causing wildfires in western Montana to burn more acres, last longer and produce more smoke. That means children’s lungs, which are more vulnerable than those of adults, suffer the most.
“So when we talk about the balance of decisions we’re making for one consumption or the other, we really have to balance it over the externalized costs of those health care costs that are taking place to children,” he explained. “And those are never taken into the equation. So if you look at the decades of suffering, the years of life lost in children because of our decisions we make now, you never see that figured into the cost of cheap energy or the cost of fossil fuels consumption or our own society’s consumption.”
A broad consensus among experts has confirmed that the burning of fossil fuels like oil and coal, along with deforestation, are responsible for an increase in global average temperatures. Smith said that the U.S. government’s failure to factor in the cost of negative health effects when promoting fossil fuels is a dangerous bet.
“So you really have to, in my eyes, look at this as the government making a gamble that 95, 97, 99 percent of climate scientists are wrong and it’s OK to keep with the current situation that we have,” Smith said. “But that gamble is not being made on their ledger. That gamble is being made on our children’s and grandchildren’s ledger.”
Montana lawmakers, meanwhile, continue to promote carbon-emitting energy. In March, Montana Public Radio reported that a Montana state senator, Colstrip Republican Duane Ankney, took a trip arranged by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines to Washington, D.C.
The trip’s purpose was to encourage U.S. Department of Energy officials to subsidize coal-fired power plants, like the one in Colstrip, with taxpayer dollars to help keep them running and economically viable. That’s because Ankney said coal, unlike other energy sources, can be turned on and off when it’s needed most.
“As soon as the wind quits blowing and you lose your hydro, then you want that baseload coal-fired generation to come online,” he told MTPR.
The Montana Institute on Ecosystems, the American Lung Association and the University of Montana School of Public Health and Community Sciences hosted a two-part seminar called “Climate Change and Human Health in Montana” earlier this month in Bozeman and Missoula. The seminar featured a variety of expert speakers, from health care workers to climate scientists, talking about the dangers of climate change and possible solutions.
The 2017 Montana Climate Assessment found that increasing temperatures will have broad impacts on Montana’s waters, forests and agriculture — and that will have implications in the statewide economy. More wildfire smoke, though, will increase mortality related to cardiovascular and respiratory conditions. There will be increased incidents of heat stress and premature births.
Smith said the World Health Organization estimates that 85 percent of health impacts of climate change occur in children under the age of 5.
“I think that’s really kind of a stark message,” Smith said.
Children have less developed immune systems, more vulnerable lungs and are less able to regulate their body temperatures. That makes them more susceptible to heat stress. Smith said heat and air pollution from climate change have caused increased rates of premature births, and children born prematurely suffer lifelong health consequences.
Wildfire smoke promises to become more common in western Montana in the coming years, Smith said.
“Over the last 50 years, forest fires are starting sooner, burning more acres and producing more smoke than we used to see,” he said.
Several studies have shown that increased logging and thinning on public lands is unlikely to lead to less wildfire smoke in the future.
Nick Silverman, a hydroclimatologist at the University of Montana and the co-author of the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment, said all four of the last four years have been the hottest on record.
“Every year we keep breaking records on heat,” he said, displaying a graph that shows the average global temperatures increasing since the industrial revolution.
Silverman said that all 40 of the forecasting models used by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predict temperature increases of 5-6 degrees above the historical average for Montana in the next 30 years.
The number of days below freezing temperatures in western Montana will decrease every year by about a month and a half, while the number of days with temperatures above 90 degrees will increase here by a couple of weeks. There will probably be more precipitation in the winter and spring, but less rain in the summer. And August, especially, is predicted to be drier and hotter than average.
Summers will be 30 percent drier, and the rest of the year will be slightly wetter, Silverman said.
There will be a 50 percent increase in the area burned by wildfires every year, specifically in August. There will be smoke lasting well into September, a decline in snowpack, and the peak streamflow will be two to three weeks earlier.
“This all could potentially be the norm by the mid-century,” he said. “There will be an increase in droughts and wildfire.”
To see the entire two-part seminar on Climate Change and Human Health in Montana, visit http://montanaioe.org/form/climate-change-and-human-health-montana-seminar.