April 11, 2011

Dan Ferber is a freelance journalist in Indianapolis who writes about science, health and the environment. He is a contributing correspondent for Science, and has had his work appear in Popular Science, New Scientist, Audubon and Women's Health. He spent the past three years working on a book about the health effects of climate change with Dr. Paul Epstein, associate director of the center for health and global environment at Harvard Medical School. The book, titled, "Changing Planet, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do about It," was published this month by the University of California Press.

IBJ: What was the most surprising thing related to the health impact of global warming that you learned while writing this book?

A: What was most surprising to me was how pervasive and far-reaching these health risks are. I did not realize in how many ways rapid climate change, which is what we’re experiencing, can affect health. One thing in this country that is more pervasive than people know about is heat waves. Heat waves kill more than 1,500 people a year, which is more than hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes and floods combined. Of course, there’s natural fluctuations in the weather; they’re always have been. But they’re increasing. By the 2040s, we’ll have a heat wave like Chicago had in 1995 every year. So that’s the path that we’re on if we don’t change course.

IBJ: In Indiana, we love our cars and our cheap coal-powered electricity. Do you see the recommended responses to climate change as a major threat to the state’s economy?

A: If you look at the true price of coal, it’s not cheap at all. What we see on our electric bill, that’s not the true cost of coal. To see the true cost of an energy source, you have to look cradle to grave [including mining, transportation and dealing with the effects of its pollution. Coal contributes to asthma, allergies, lung cancer and heart attacks]. ... If you do a lifecycle analysis, it cost the U.S. one-third to one-half trillion dollars [$333 billion to $500 billion] every year. That’s $4,000 a year for a family of four. That doubles the price per kilowatt-hour for electricity. That actually makes solar and wind less expensive than coal.

IBJ: The book also addresses the Climategate scandal, which exposed e-mails from some climate scientists that appear to show them massaging climate data and blocking publication of research by climate-change skeptics. That scandal, in addition to the recession, seems to have reduced the American public’s appetite for combating climate change. Do you think public opinion will shift back again to where it was in 2007-’08?

A: I think in time. It [Climategate] was basically a propaganda campaign. It accomplished its goals. But here’s some trendline for you. You just have to go to the gas pump. Gas prices are going up. Because the easy oil is gone. In most of the world the easy oil is gone. Texas is pretty much dead. The costs of fuel will get people thinking about it.


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