• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Climate Change, part 3

Air Date: Week of

Our special on climate change continues with part 3.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. A few years ago, a group of leading researchers published a report on climate change and its impact on human health. They found that changes in rainfall, temperature, and other weather variables may affect the rate of illnesses spread by ticks, mosquitoes, and other pests – illnesses such as West Nile virus, dengue fever, Lyme disease, and malaria.

New York City was the first place in North America to experience an outbreak of West Nile virus. By last year, it had spread to 44 states, and killed more than 280 people.

Our special, “Degrees of Concern: Climate Change and New York City’s Future” continues now as producer John Rudolph explains how West Nile came to the city and how it has changed the way New Yorkers live.


RUDOLPH: Late on a hot summer afternoon, James Gibson stands in Staten Island’s Willowbrook Park. He’s thumbing through maps of the area and swatting at the occasional mosquito. Gibson is the assistant commissioner for Veterinary and Pest-control Services at New York City’s Department of Health. On this day, he’s overseeing a fleet of spray trucks, the latest weapons in the city’s war against mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus.

GIBSON: We’re using a machine called an ultra-low-volume applicator, which basically uses very low amounts of pesticide. It’s in very small, tiny droplets and, basically, what happens is the droplets hit the mosquitoes in flight and it actually kills them in flight.


RUDOLPH: Gibson’s convoy heads into the park. In addition to the spray trucks, the entourage also includes a three-wheeled, all-terrain vehicle. Its driver wears a hooded body suit and a gas mask. A portable loudspeaker warns people along the spray route to take cover.

VOICE ON LOUDSPEAKER: The city is applying pesticide to reduce the threat of West Nile virus. To minimize exposure to the pesticide, please go indoors immediately, until the trucks have passed…

RUDOLPH: This year’s mosquito-eradication campaign began in April. Thousands of bugs have been tested to see if they are infected with the virus. But the most potent defense against West Nile virus may be something more difficult to achieve: changing human behavior. Thomas Frieden is New York City’s health commissioner.

FRIEDEN: People can protect themselves by wearing long-sleeved shirts and using DEET when they go out between dusk and dawn. And they can protect their neighborhoods by getting rid of standing water and calling 311 if they see a dead bird because that helps us to track the spread of the virus.

RUDOLPH: For some, the battle against West Nile and the mosquitoes that carry the virus ends here. But others go back to the original outbreak and see a connection between the sudden appearance of this new disease and unusual weather patterns that may be linked to climate change. The arrival of West Nile virus in New York can be traced to the summer of 1999 when people started showing up at hospitals in northern Queens complaining of severe headaches, confusion, nausea, fevers. By Labor Day, two elderly New Yorkers had died.

At first, health officials thought they were dealing with an outbreak of St. Louis encephalitis. It took a few weeks before investigators noticed an important clue: the illness was also killing birds. Dickson Despommier is a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

DESPOMMIER: The veterinarians became alerted to the fact that, not only were birds dying outside the zoo, but they were also dying inside the zoo, and exotic birds at that. But as it turned out, only birds that lived in the Western Hemisphere were dying. All the birds from Africa didn’t seem to be affected.

RUDOLPH: Since St. Louis encephalitis doesn’t kill birds in this country, health officials realized they were dealing with a different disease. But what was it? Based on DNA matching, the pathogen killing both birds and humans was correctly identified as West Nile virus. West Nile is common in Africa, West Asia, and the Middle East, where many birds have developed immunity to it. The virus had never been seen in North America.

How did it get to New York and why did it spread so quickly? Many researchers suspect West Nile virus hitched a ride on what scientists call a “vector” – in this case, probably an infected person or mosquito traveling from the Middle East. As to its rapid spread, Despommier believes the weather may have played a key role. The summer of 1999 was the hottest and driest the city had experienced in 100 years. These extreme conditions may have allowed the virus to get a foothold.

DESPOMMIER: There were six days in July over 100 degrees. From May 23 until August, there was no rain whatsoever. So, the virus multiplies like crazy inside these vectors. Now every bite has the potential for injecting lots of virus particles.

RUDOLPH: Most people think of mosquitoes as wet-weather pests. But dry conditions actually make them more of a threat. The lack of rain creates a concentrated, polluted mix in breeding pools where mosquitoes thrive. Hot temperatures speed up the mosquitoes’ life cycle. These conditions have been blamed for several West Nile outbreaks, according to Paul Epstein of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.

EPSTEIN: West Nile’s largest outbreaks in the 90s in Romania, in Russia, in Israel and in New York in 1999, were all associated with severe droughts.

RUDOLPH: For Epstein, those droughts were abnormal occurrences associated with climate change.

EPSTEIN: Heat in the atmosphere, in the oceans, is changing the water cycle, affecting the intensity, duration, and geographic patterns of precipitation. These are fundamental to where mosquitoes breed. So, in addition to the warming, it’s these extremes and wide oscillations from droughts, punctuated by heavy rains, that are key to destabilizing the biological systems.

GUBLER: To say that climate change has been responsible for epidemics like West Nile is really stretching it.

RUDOLPH: For the past five years Duane Gubler of the Centers for Disease Control has led that agency’s response to the West Nile outbreak.

GUBLER: Climate change can influence transmission patterns, but it’s a slow process. And the thing that causes epidemics is not climate change but the introduction of the right virus into the right place where there’s a susceptible vertebrate population.

RUDOLPH: While Gubler agrees that climate does influence the spread of some diseases, he disagrees sharply with those who focus on climate change as the cause of the West Nile virus outbreak.

GUBLER: Climate change, per se, should have little or no impact on public health if public health officials and the communities do what they’re supposed to do. And that is to develop good public health programs that will mitigate any minor changes in temperature that may occur over a period of time.

RUDOLPH: Others researchers see the West Nile outbreak that began in New York as an opportunity to begin to understand the connection between climate and the spread of disease. Kim Knowlton studies the health impacts of climate change at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

KNOWLTON: The global climate models are predicting that in future, not only is the trend of warming going to continue, as a result of both natural and anthropogenic causes, sources of greenhouse gasses, but that the variability of weather on shorter timeframes is also going to increase. So, West Nile has been a great way to, sort of, get our legs and get our surveillance methods improved and also start this discussion. What comes next? What do we do? What is climate really doing to our weather?

RUDOLPH: One thing scientists are doing is developing a vaccine against West Nile. Human tests at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease begin later this year. An effective vaccine could go a long way toward making people feel more secure against the virus. But the appearance of West Nile in New York and across the country has already forced changes in individual behavior and government policies. And so the question some researchers continue to ask is whether West Nile will be followed by other diseases whose spread is encouraged by the warming of the world’s climate, and whose appearance will force further changes in the way people live.


RUDOLPH: Most New Yorkers probably think of climate change as some force that melts polar ice caps or inundates islands in the Pacific. Its impact on an urban area like New York is harder to comprehend. Still, that doesn’t mean New Yorkers aren’t paying attention to climate change. Around the city, a number of efforts are underway to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other gasses that are blamed for the man-made disruption of the climate. But these efforts are not likely to protect New York from the effects of climate change, such as rising seas and more powerful and more frequent storms.


JACOB: I think this is an extraordinary, commendable effort. But, it is, unfortunately, at this point, a drop in the bucket.

RUDOLPH: Climate researcher Klaus Jacob of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory stands outside one of the city’s more ambitious projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a new apartment building under construction just a few blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. Martin Dettling is the construction manager.

DETTLING: We’re at the top of the building here. This is the highest point of the building. It’s twenty-seven stories, plus a mechanical bulkhead. That contains all of our equipment.

RUDOLPH: The building is called The Solaire, a name that combines the words "solar" and "air." It’s designed to be 35 percent more energy efficient than your typical Manhattan high-rise. The Solaire was built in response to a number of environmental challenges. Chief among them, says Dettling, is the need to combat global warming.

DETTLING: We have estimates of how much emissions we’re going to reduce going into the air. I think it’s the equivalent of 400 automobiles per year not being driven around in our streets, is what this building’s design difference has made, and that is a very large factor. I mean, that’s where all of this comes from.

RUDOLPH: The developers of the Solaire call it America’s first environmentally sustainable, high-rise residential building. Researcher Klaus Jacob admires its energy-efficient design. But he points out that like many buildings in New York, the Solaire is vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

JACOB: There’s another side to this particular building that is, sort of unfortunately, ironic.

RUDOLPH: Jacob notes the structure has no protection against rising seas and violent storms. And the Hudson River is only about 50 yards from the Solaire’s elegant lobby entrance.

JACOB: So we are just probably at that level where – under the current circumstances – this building may do all right, but at the end of the century when sea level rise has fully taken effect, it may be flooded.

RUDOLPH: Professor Jacob argues that the Solaire, and other buildings that follow it, should include safeguards against the effects of climate change. For example, he says, all the electrical and mechanical systems that normally go into a building's basement should be put on higher floors where they won't be damaged by flooding. Requiring buildings to include these kinds of protections would be difficult, but not unprecedented. Jacob points out that codes already exist to protect structures from other threats such as earthquakes.

JACOB: I’m afraid it needs a very thorough, and unfortunately, scientifically engineering-based approach on this with cost-benefit assessments built into this. We have not yet gotten to that stage. Nobody is willing even to finance any such assessments right now.

RUDOLPH: Last year, a United Nations conference concluded that “adaptation to the adverse effects of climate change is of high priority for all countries.” Still, this notion of adapting, of finding ways to cope with the predicted effects of global warming is a concept that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, including some environmentalists. They’ve spent years trying to prevent global warming. To them, adaptation is a form of surrender. Ashok Gupta develops climate change strategies at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Manhattan.

GUPTA: We have the capacity as a civilization to be able to address this important problem. And adaptation is really giving up, and the harmful effects that will go with adaptation are too serious to accept. My view is that we’ve got to do whatever we can to stop the disaster that would take place with significant climate change.

RUDOLPH: Gupta worries that emphasizing adaptation will reduce the pressure to eliminate man-made causes of global warming, especially greenhouse gases produced by power plants, factories and cars. A different objection comes from Yale University economist Robert Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn studies the regional impacts of climate change. According to his research, unless temperatures unexpectedly soar to new heights, American cities, including New York, will not be significantly hurt by climate change. And so Mendelsohn questions the need to take immediate and costly steps to prepare for future climate-related disasters.

MENDELSOHN: If you tell me that sea-level rise is going to be 90 centimeters in 100 years, you don't want to start building a 90-centimeter wall, or a two-meter wall around New York City today, because that is so far in advance of the actual risk involved. And it’s just way too soon. And it turns out that acting too soon is going to waste resources.

RUDOLPH: How much money, time and effort should be spent preparing for an uncertain future? This is the question New York faces as the impact of man-made changes in the world’s climate begins to be detected around the metropolitan area. We know the world is getting warmer, that seas are rising, that storm patterns are being disrupted. But no one can accurately predict how quickly these changes will be felt, or how severe they will be.


RUDOLPH: Already-rising seas are thought to be contributing to the devastating loss of marshland in Jamaica Bay, near Kennedy Airport. Scientist Vivian Gornitz studies sea-level rise at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Looking out over New York’s skyline, Gornitz worries about the cost of not adapting – especially in a city surrounded by water and constantly in the process of rebuilding its waterfront.


GORNITZ: You’re sort of on a collision course between heavy development that's happening along the coast and the gradual rise in sea level but superimposed on that, the storm surges that are inevitably going to happen. So, you have the potential for a lot of damage, destruction of property and, hopefully not, but possible loss of life, too.

RUDOLPH: On a calm autumn day it’s hard to visualize the potential danger. But one major study shows that in a class 3 hurricane, which is not even the most severe type of storm, lower Manhattan would become its own island. The financial district, City Hall, the World Trade Center site, all would be separated from the rest of New York by a mass of water. And so, over the long term, the city’s response to climate change could be just as important as defending buildings and bridges against terrorists, or reviving the economy. Because of this, a growing number of New Yorkers are focusing on climate change and how it may impact the city. They want New York to be ready when the changes come.

[MUSIC: Passengers “Slug” ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACKS 1(Island –1995)]



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth