Story by Tom Kuglin
Communities in Montana should consider impacts to physical and mental health when developing adaptations and mitigation to climate change, according to a report released Tuesday by scientists from Montana universities and a climate-focused health care organization.
“Climate Change and Human Health in Montana” is based on analysis of the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment.
It is authored by the Montana University System’s Institute on Ecosystems, Montana State University’s Center for American Indian and Rural Health Equity and the nonprofit Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Environment.
The report identifies human health concerns brought on or exacerbated by climate change and what populations may be most impacted. It also calls for better data collection on those effects and robust planning by communities to mitigate and adapt.
“It is our hope that this report will help us come together as a state to address this major challenge of our time and enable our communities to not only adapt and mitigate climate change but to thrive,” said Alexandra Adams, director of the center and lead author of the report.
The 2017 Montana Climate Assessment found the state’s average temperature has increased nearly 3 degrees in the last three-quarters of a century. It also predicts additional warming in the future — as much as 5 to 10 degrees by the end of this century, depending on the success of efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Tuesday’s report takes those findings and applies them to both physical and mental public health. Among the predicted impacts of climate change are more days topping 90 degrees, longer wildfire seasons with smoky skies and increases in extreme weather such as flooding and drought. Those can have well-known physical effects like respiratory illness due to smoke, but stress can also impact mental health, the report says.
“Severe and extreme weather events due to climate change adversely impact mental health,” said Laura Williamson, state epidemiologist with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. “After severe weather events, people can experience anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse or suicidal thoughts.”
As solutions, the report calls for creating and funding a statewide public health network to encourage planning and implementation of climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. Next, it calls for stronger and more localized data collection on climate ties to health. That includes expansion of air and water quality monitoring, particularly for rural areas considered underreported. Support for documenting and analyzing physical and mental health impacts of heat, air and water quality are important as well.
“It’s been interesting doing this report because we’re two communities that don’t work very much together,” said Cathy Whitlock, MSU professor in the Department of Earth Science. “We have our own things going on. We’re a climate science community and then we’re health care professionals. This report was really important and I think a personally enriching experience for all of us to come together and look at our greatest resource in Montana, and that’s our people and talk about what climate change means for us.”
The report also identifies several population segments as most vulnerable to health maladies. Those include young and old people, low-income individuals, Native American communities and rural Montanans.
“We also know that climate change does not affect all groups of people equally,” Williamson said. “Those with existing physical and mental health conditions as well as the young and old, those living in poverty and those with limited access to health services will be impacted more than others by severe heat or poor air quality caused by wildfires.”
For example, those with lower incomes may be less likely to be able to afford air conditioning during heat waves or indoor air filters when smoke causes hazardous air. Increased flooding can contaminate drinking water while drought could cause increases in some diseases such as West Nile Virus, presenters of the report said.
The report does not attempt to quantify climate-related increases in physical or mental health issues. There is no distinct line between climate and other causes, said co-author Robert Byron, an internist with the nonprofit, but that does not mean a link does not exist.
“Climate change is often thought of as a multiplier,” he said. “In many cases it makes things that already exist much worse; like we already see conditions related to heat. Those will get worse. We already see conditions related to wildfires. Those will get worse.”
For John Doyle, water quality project director for the Crow Tribe, the impacts of climate change are both economic and health related. As demand for Crow-supplied coal has waned, the associated job loss has left the tribe, county and local governments struggling. But also, studies of Crow wells found high rates of contamination and few resources to remedy increased flooding or drought that can compromise the quality of water supplies.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also hit places such as Bighorn County, where the reservation is mostly located, particularly hard with data showing disproportionate infection rates and deaths.
“When you’re in a community that’s already completely stressed from no money, no jobs, very deep poverty, then you throw this into the mix,” he said. “If we’re having a hard time now and we know that climate change is going to be much worse as time goes, it’s going to be much more difficult for more than just us.”