May 13th, 2009
06:30 PM ET

Global warming poses world health threat

By Caleb Hellerman
CNN Medical Senior Producer

Today in the Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal, is a report that global warming is a threat to human health. This is pretty much what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said last month – a move that opens the way to treat greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, as pollution. A lot of people scratch their heads and wonder: Even if global warming is bad, is it really a health issue?

As it happens, I was in Washington, D.C., yesterday with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, as he was interviewing Lisa Perez Jackson, the head of the EPA. She was running late from another appointment and whooshed through the door, sat right down and got started. Why the link between climate change and health? Her answer: Climate change means hotter weather, changes in the cycle of rain and evaporation, and more droughts. On a very basic level, says Jackson, “All those things exacerbate air pollution that we already have. It means people who have lung problems, people who have respiratory problems, are going to have more of them.” We know that’s just a part of it – climate change threatens crops and could even lead to more infectious disease.

The thing is, we know change won’t be easy. A switch to cleaner, greener fuels and materials will carry a cost, at least in the short run. Maybe optimistically, the White House and EPA estimate the cost at approximately $100 to $150 per family, per year. In a tough economy, that’s a lot. Dr. Gupta asked: Is there any price we just can’t afford?

Jackson’s answer: You have to compare that cost with the cost of the status quo. “We don't price human health. We don't price pollution the way we should. A lot of times those costs are hidden. The hospital admissions and the sick days out and the effects on children who aren't in school and the effects on their parents who can't be with them. All of that is sometimes invisible, so we have to make sure we're counting costs and costs, right? The costs of doing nothing and the costs of doing something.”

We got into more than just climate change – we talked about the way the EPA assesses toxic chemicals and how to keep it free from political interference. A few things struck me: Administrator Jackson seems to say the buck stops here – on tough questions she’d say, “I have to make that decision.” Not “we” but “I.” She also said the president is a hands-on guy. He or his staff calls regularly, asking for details or explanations about her weekly reports. It was great to have a front-row seat to the whole conversation – we’ll be playing a lot of it over the next few days.

What, if anything, are you willing to pay to get global warming under control?

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.