Courtesy of Schirin Rangnick

As Yale’s researchers scan the globe to see the impacts of climate change, a new report out of the School of Public Health underscores a risk much closer to home.

The report is the most comprehensive review of climate change and health in the state, according to lead author and SPH Center for Climate Change and Health program manager Laura Bozzi ’03. Researchers at the YSPH analyzed 19 indicators of climate change and health in Connecticut. For each indicator — split into the categories of temperature, extreme events, infectious diseases and air quality — the study tracked recent changes, the potential threat to human health and how effects may intensify in the future. The study noted that although climate change will affect everyone, it will disproportionately harm the most vulnerable members of the population.

The report found that there is still hope to avoid the worst of the threats, but the necessary changes must be sweeping and immediate. 

“We’re focused on policy change because, [with] the scale of the problem, we need broad-scale policy to address it, but there’s a lot that individuals can do also,” Bozzi said. “One is to make clear to their decision-makers that climate change is a priority to them and consider that in their voting.”

Among the report’s findings is that climate change can interact with other longstanding environmental hazards. Connecticut has 16 Superfund sites, or areas contaminated by toxic waste. The report found that seven of these 16 sites are vulnerable to damage from more severe floods or hurricanes, including four sites in New Haven alone. The sites could potentially release contaminants into the soil, air, ground or surface water.

Additionally, the report tracked temperature trends in Connecticut. The average temperature in the state has increased by about 3 to 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit in each county since 1895. The temperature gain far exceeds the global average gain of 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit from 1901 to 2016, according to the report.

The report adds that all evidence points to humans as the primary cause of this warming. And the effects of extreme heat are particularly detrimental in urban areas where there are more buildings and roads and fewer trees to provide shade. Outdoor workers, people experiencing homelessness and adults over 65 are especially vulnerable.

Climate change is known as a “risk amplifier,” the report explains, as the effects disproportionately harm the most vulnerable members of society. With increased temperatures specifically, people with lower incomes are at risk of heat-related illness, as they may have poorly insulated housing or be reluctant to turn on their air conditioning and increase their utility bills.

Epidemiology professor and co-author of the report Robert Dubrow said that the drastic increase in extreme weather events in the state was particularly distressing to him. Between 2010 and 2019, there were nine federal disaster declarations for weather events in Connecticut. In the 56 years prior, there were only 13. Climate change intensifies hurricanes, swirling up wind speeds and leading to heavier rainfall, the report notes.

“It’s impossible to predict when, but I think it’s fair to make a prediction that at some point we’re going to get hit by a hurricane with unprecedented intensity for hitting Connecticut and New England,” Dubrow said. “It may be next year, it may be 10 years from now, but that’s probably a fairly safe prediction about one of the effects of climate change.”

Like with rising temperatures, these extreme weather events will likely affect first and foremost people with lower incomes. Government-subsidized housing may have less insulation, and people may not have insurance or emergency credit to make up the property lost.

Bozzi referred to a report out of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication that examined why some residents of two coastal Connecticut areas did not evacuate given the threat of Hurricane Sandy. In the largely whiter and wealthier area, more people chose not to evacuate to protect their homes or to watch the storm. By contrast, more people in the lower-income neighborhood faced structural barriers to evacuation including not knowing where to go, not having a vehicle or not having good enough health to evacuate.

Chris Schweitzer, program coordinator of the New Haven/León Sister City Project, which organizes the New Haven Climate Movement, advocated for large-scale efforts to combat climate change.

“Nobody’s doing really what they need to be doing to address this problem, we’re just watching it every day get worse and worse,” Schweitzer said. “It’s kind of like if your five-year-old daughter has cancer and you go to a doctor and the doctor says take some vitamins, do some yoga, come back in a year. If it’s Stage 3 cancer you probably want chemotherapy, you want a solution that’s the scale of the problem to address it.”

Already, the people who did not cause climate change are the hardest hit, Schweitzer said. Poorer people often live in warmer areas with increased air pollution from toxic fumes, though they often do not use as many resources as people in wealthier neighborhoods. The “nicer neighborhoods” are often farther from pollution but more expensive to live in, Dubrow explained. 

Climate change has already impacted Connecticut; about 13,000 families were displaced after Hurricane Maria migrated to the state. In response, organizations including Junta for Progressive Action have offered aid.

“There are these structural ways that climate change disproportionately impacts some populations versus others,” Bozzi said. “It’s important to have policies that are protective of vulnerable populations and those policies need to be determined in collaboration with those that are affected.”

The report outlines a set of recommendations to mitigate the effects of climate change and progress towards environmental justice. Throughout the report, the authors emphasize that there is reason for hope. If people act immediately to switch to renewable energy, they can still avert a climate catastrophe.

In addition to the long-term benefits of decarbonizing the economy, the report noted several “co-benefits” — more immediate positive effects on human health and well-being. For example, utility bills place a heavy burden on people with lower incomes, Dubrow said. Switching to more energy-efficient heating and cooling systems would help mitigate climate change and have the important co-benefit of reducing utility costs.

The report outlines recommendations for state policymakers, including increasing education on the topic for health professionals and incorporating climate change into decision-making across all sectors.

The state of Connecticut has pledged to bring greenhouse gas emissions to 45 percent below their 2001 levels by 2030, and to 80 percent below 2001 levels by 2050. Already, the governor has formed a council to craft pathways to meet the goal.

But, the report notes, this threshold lags behind other states. New York has set the more progressive goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Dubrow said that he thinks Connecticut should prioritize switching the electricity sector to renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. This change can then act as the foundation for decarbonizing transportation and heating.

Schweitzer also advocated for a much higher level of ambition on the state’s part.

“People are not really awake to the kind of fire they’re playing with — literally, just think about California,” he said.

Last year, the New Haven Climate Movement helped lobby the city to declare a climate emergency. Since then, the city has committed one-tenth of one percent of its budget, or $560,000, to investing in climate infrastructure projects, according to the movement’s website. New Haven also allocated $50,000 of the general 2020 budget towards climate solutions.

But, Schweitzer added, too many people find solace in the younger generation’s commitment to climate causes. He spoke of the importance of drastic action within the next few years.

“Where are the people who run the Chamber of Commerce?” Schweitzer said. “Where are the people who run Yale? Where are the people who run all these institutions, who have power right now? They’re asleep, generally. I think they care but they’re not acting like they feel it in their gut.”

The Yale Center on Climate Change and Health’s website says that climate change poses the greatest public health challenge of the 21st century.

Rose Horowitch | rose.horowitch@yale.edu