We’re used to hearing about climate change’s impact on the polar ice caps, seeing graphic pictures of starving polar bears floating on pieces of ice barely large enough to hold their weight. It can be easy for politicians, professors and even Yale students to shrug off this narrative; there are more pressing issues affecting humanity than the survival of bears. The issue becomes harder to ignore when we see climate change related deaths in our own community. We need to stop talking about climate change as something “out there” — it’s here among us.
Over the past few weeks, three Connecticut residents have died from Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE), a disease that had previously been reported only one time in the history of the state. EEE is a mosquito-borne virus with no cure, killing, on average, one-third of those infected. As the EEE outbreak is impacting multiple states, including Connecticut, Massachusetts and Michigan, researchers are wondering what prompted this most recent crisis.
Mosquito-borne diseases are intricately linked to the environment. Hotter and longer summers delay the first ‘hard frost’ — a natural mechanism by which mosquitoes die, along with the diseases they harbor within them. Increased rainfall and the accumulation of stagnant rain puddles create ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes to thrive. In addition, higher temperatures and increased weather variability increase the percentage of mosquitoes that carry viruses, such as West Nile, making each bite more dangerous.
All these weather conditions are exacerbated by climate change. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Connecticut has already experienced an increase in its annual mean temperature by 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895, which is higher than the rise in global mean temperature during that time. Connecticut has consistently experienced above average warm nights and below average cold nights since the mid-1980s. Furthermore, the average annual precipitation has increased.
Though it is difficult to connect conclusively the ongoing EEE outbreak in Connecticut to climate change, the changing environment is undeniably fostering greater mosquito distribution and longevity. In fact, increased annual temperature and precipitation has contributed to the rise in the number of active mosquito days — the number of days in the year when mosquitoes bite humans. According to Climate Central, the number of active mosquito days has increased from 71 in the 1980s to 100 in Connecticut today. Now that the effects of climate change have reached our backyard, we can no longer look away.
As humans continue to drive climate change through greenhouse gas emissions, these problems will only get worse. Over the next 50 years, Connecticut’s mean annual temperature is estimated to increase by over 5 degrees Fahrenheit compared to pre-industrial levels. Annual total precipitation and extreme storms are also projected to increase. These weather changes have the potential to further increase Connecticut’s susceptibility to EEE outbreaks, along with other deadly vector-borne diseases like Zika virus, dengue, chikungunya and West Nile.
We need action — at Yale and across the country.
Mitigating the effects of climate change to prevent these outbreaks from happening in the first place will require a coordinated effort on a national scale. The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act and the Green New Deal are initiatives in congress aimed at combating climate change by reducing fossil fuel consumption. On a local level, there are many active groups taking action, including Fossil Free Yale, the New Haven Climate Movement, 350 CT and the Citizens Climate Lobby.
Ultimately, national policy change and grassroots organizations need support from individuals. By coordinating our efforts, we have the best shot at saving human lives. Saving the polar bears is just the cherry on top.
Don’t know where to start? Here are seven meaningful and manageable ways that you can help our community combat climate change:
Contact your congressional representatives and senators to express your concern.
Push for New Haven to limit its fossil fuel use and switch to renewable energy by supporting 350 CT, a grassroots organization that is working to transition CT to a 100 percent clean renewable energy system.
Take the shuttle, walk or bike to work. Data from the EPA shows that the transportation sector accounts for a whopping 29 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and most of that is derived from individual cars.
Reduce the carbon footprint of your food. Cutting animal protein intake by just half would reduce your per person land use and agriculture greenhouse gas emissions by more than 40 percent.
Join the bipartisan efforts of Connecticut Climate Lobby and support a carbon tax; encourage Yale to divest from fossil fuels by supporting the student group Fossil Free Yale.
You can also join the effort with your personal finances — investing platforms like Vanguard and Betterment have tools to help you develop a Socially Responsible Investment portfolio.
Vote. The website of the bipartisan group Connecticut League of Conservation Voters is a great resource for learning about your representatives and where they stand on bills that impact the environment.
Rachel Hennein is a second-year MD PhD student at the Yale School of Medicine. Contact her at email@example.com .