Story by Kayla Desroches
Montana State University released a report Tuesday warning that rising temperatures, wildfires and other effects of climate change could increase the likelihood of lung disease in vulnerable populations, exacerbate existing conditions like asthma and hurt farmers’ mental health.
The Climate Change and Human Health in Montana report examines the physical and mental consequences of climate change impacts, including poor air quality from forest fires and drought due to increasing summer temperatures.
Researchers, professors and physicians from MSU and Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate co-authored the report. It builds upon MSU’s 2017 “Climate Change Assessment,” this time with an emphasis on human impact.
Vice Chair of nonprofit Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate Doctor Rob Byron calls climate change a “threat multiplier.”
“In many cases it makes things that already exist much worse. We already see conditions related to heat. Those will get worse. We already see conditions related to wildfires. Those will get worse," Byron says.
Authors say pollution and decreased air quality from wildfires during abnormally hot, dry summers can especially affect vulnerable populations like the very young or very old and worsen pre-existing conditions like asthma, especially in western Montana.
More than a dozen counties in eastern Montana are rated vulnerable for increased heat exposure, and the potential for water- and food-born diseases increases with earlier snowmelt, more intense rainfall events and projected flooding.
Among the most striking effects that stand out to MSU Ecology Professor Bruce Maxwell is the influence of rising temperatures on farmers’ crops and livelihood.
“There’s so much stress goes with the fact that if you can’t produce crops or the economics of reduced yields and things like that really have an impact on people’s mental health," Maxwell says.
The report references a recent MSU survey of 125 Montana ranchers and farmers where almost three quarters of respondents said they felt anxiety about the effects of climate change.
The report also calls for better monitoring and information sharing of heat, water, smoke and air quality and health impacts
Earth Sciences Professor Cathy Whitlock says air monitoring is uneven across the state, especially in eastern Montana.
“That makes a disconnect between trying to warn people about things like wildfires smoke or imminent air quality issues but not really having the data in hand that’s really very accurate that particular place. So, hopefully this report will help highlight some of those areas where there are gaps in instrumentation and also gaps in knowledge," Whitlock says.
The authors say the report and its recommendations are aimed at a broad audience from healthcare organizations to ranchers and elected officials.
One of the report’s recommendations is to establish a public health network that can work together with government agencies to improve upon monitoring technology and help local communities collect information about health impacts.
The authors also suggest climate adaptation training for community leaders, landowners and other stakeholders.
Governor Steve Bullock’s Montana Climate Solutions Council released a set of strategies to reach Bullock’s goal of net-greenhouse gas neutrality for the electric power sector by 2035 and net-zero emissions by 2050.