This Earth Day, I am giving thanks for the lingering effects of our cold-wet winter and the beautiful snow-capped mountains. Reservoirs are filling up, fisher-people are casting away in streams with hopes of bountiful catches, and kayakers are bucking the rapids again. We should all enjoy this wet winter that used to be the “norm,” while remembering that we have much work to do to make the climate safe for our children.
I would like to share my family’s story because it concerns all parents, hikers, hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts in the region.
My daughter and I have spent countless days recreating in Oregon’s cherished public lands. In 2011, at the age of 5, she contracted Lyme disease from a tick bite. I didn’t know it at the time, but her health would be inextricably linked to that of the planet and our climate. As a scientist working to combat climate change, imagine the irony and horror that I felt as a tick carrying a disease rapidly spreading from global warming forever changed my daughter.
Since the 1990s, ticks have been exploding in numbers and expanding in range, including in Southern Oregon. By mid-century, they will be as far north as Scandinavia, as northern reaches warm the fastest, providing friendly climate and abundant habitat for ticks.
Those nasty ticks hitch a ride on the backs of disease “vectors” such as deer that have increased in numbers due to forest clearing and the decline of wolves. In our region, deer are like pigeons — they’re nearly everywhere!
Some of those blood-gorging ticks on deer and other animals carry Lyme disease along with parasitic co-infections transmitted when a tick bites unsuspecting outdoor enthusiasts, gardeners, and pets. We all should worry about this alarming climate and human health risk.
My daughter has experienced years of compromised health from Lyme disease. She is not alone in her suffering. Some 400,000 new cases are believed to occur each year in the United States, making it among the most pervasive vector-borne illnesses being tracked by the Center for Disease Control. Other diseases also spreading rapidly from climate change include Zika, Dengue fever, Leishmaniasis and malaria. We can also expect higher rates of asthma, heat stroke, and water-borne illnesses.
Over $1 billion is spent in the United States annually in Lyme disease health care costs alone. The Institute of Medicine and federal National Guidelines Clearinghouse sanctions treatment for complicated cases of Lyme. However, most health insurers do not cover patients beyond early treatment and diagnosis. Insurance denial results in hundreds of thousands of patients facing bankruptcy and disability while suffering from Lyme-related conditions ranging from rheumatoid arthritis to heart failure.
Having heard my heart-breaking story, a consortium of doctors, veterinarians and social justice advocates recently contacted me to help them call attention to the global spread of these diseases as a climate change wake-up call. If global warming is left unchecked, the most vulnerable populations will be exposed, including the very young, elderly, the poverty stricken and people with compromised immune systems.
Climate change is not just an environmental problem — it also is a growing public health risk. If we don’t act now, it will impact those we love. We need everyone to support the unequivocal science documenting how we are changing our climate both here and across the globe. A sensible solution to global warming pollution is through clean, renewable energy while protecting mature forests on public lands that are scrubbing the atmosphere of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.
We can make our climate safe but it will take decisive steps at the personal, local, state, and federal levels through effective campaigning. Local groups like “Indivisible ORD2,” supported by science at the Geos Institute and Southern Oregon Climate Action Now, are working with an outpouring of activism to request meetings with climate and science deniers like Rep. Greg Walden. Along with Rogue Climate, we are also calling on state Reps. Sal Esquivel and Mike McLane, as well as Sen. Alan DeBoer, to support the Clean Energy Jobs Act.
In honor of this Earth Day, I am doing my part as a scientist and concerned parent by participating in the April 22 Earth Day celebration at ScienceWorks and the People’s March for Climate, Jobs, and Justice the week after (Facebook). Please join me in realizing our civic responsibility as parents and informed citizens to take actions that help to ensure a safe climate this and every Earth Day for our kids and future generations.
— Dominick DellaSala, Ph.D., is chief scientist and president of the Ashland-based Geos Institute. He is an award-winning scientist of over 200 science publications and books but most importantly he is doing his part to leave a living planet and safe climate for his daughter and all those who follow.