Column: Here are some real but so far unconsidered consequences of climate change

Published July 29, 2016

As a scientist, I know that continuing climate change is the biggest threat to the security and prosperity of our state, our country and, indeed, the whole world. I also see the enormous economic opportunities provided by mitigating climate change.

At the same time I also see that a large number of political leaders continue to ignore the threat with such unintelligent remarks as "climate is always changing" (Sen. Marco Rubio) or "I am not a scientist" (Gov. Rick Scott). While it is frustrating to me as a scientist to hear such remarks, the reason they are made might be that scientists have not clearly explained the consequences of climate change. I don't think the political leaders who dismiss climate change understand the disastrous consequences of inaction.

This spring, Alex Sink, Florida's former chief financial officer, wrote a column for the Tampa Bay Times describing the importance of climate change to the state. I applaud her courage and vision to discuss this topic. At the same time, we continue to hear some leaders dismiss climate change, saying that even if there is some climate change it is inconsequential.

I don't believe that the political leaders who dismiss climate change are evil — they are just not educated about the consequences of climate change. Therefore, they continue to talk about the costs of actions needed to mitigate what they believe is inconsequential.

When we say that the mean global temperature will rise by a couple of degrees, the normal reaction of people would be, "So what?" and some may even say that it may be good for the colder areas. Or when we say that we will lose some coastal land because of sea level rise, many people may say that it is something that the rich who own real estate on the beaches should worry about, not them. Or when we point out that the extreme climate events in the last five years — such as sudden floods in Texas, Colorado, South Carolina, West Virginia and other states and extreme drought in California — occurred due to ongoing climate change, most people don't care because they are not personally affected.

But there is something that everyone can relate to, the biggest impact of climate change: the emergence of new microorganisms and diseases. This is something not addressed by the media. The emergence of Zika and Ebola are examples of such changes that we can relate to, especially now that Zika is threatening to be one of the biggest health threats to the people of Florida in years.

Although we can prepare to protect our people at a cost of billions of dollars, we cannot ensure that people will not get infected. While these viruses have existed in nature, even the smallest change in global temperature allows them to spread to areas where they were not known to exist before.

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Scientists including professor Paul Epstein of the Harvard School of Public Health have been studying the health consequences of climate change for more than three decades and have long predicted the consequences that we are seeing now and can expect to see in the future.

Twenty years ago, as the co-editor in chief of Advances in Solar Energy with Karl Boer, I invited Epstein to write a detailed article on "The Nature and Implications of Environmental Change: Climate, Ecology and Human Health."

He predicted in that article and others some of the emerging disease agents that we are concerned about today and expect to see in the future as a direct consequence of global climate change.

Here are some quotes from his article: "An expected redistribution of infectious disease is but one of the biological consequences of global environmental change;" "but warming and increased CO2 can also stimulate microbes and their carriers;" "the emergence of new diseases like Ebola affect not only the health of individuals but also of national economies." His conclusion was that, "overall, the current evaluation is that impacts of an unstable and rapidly changing climate on human health are overwhelmingly negative."

I believe it is our responsibility as citizens and the responsibility of the news media to educate people and political leaders about the disastrous consequences of inaction, especially for Florida. At the same time, I hope people understand that actions necessary to mitigate global climate change represent one of the biggest economic opportunities that we should not miss.

These opportunities include, but are not limited to, new solar and renewable energy technologies based on the vast new understanding of nano-, molecular and biotechnologies. These technologies are essential to mitigate global climate change. Years of research funded by the federal government have resulted in the development of these technologies, which present trillions of dollars of opportunities around the world. These are the technologies that will ensure continued leadership of our nation in the emerging competitive global landscape.

D. Yogi Goswami is Distinguished Professor at the University of South Florida and is the director of its Clean Energy Research Center. He is also editor in chief of the Solar Energy Journal, an international scientific journal.