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By Maggie Fox
Think recent climate disasters have been bad? Just wait, researchers at the University of Hawaii predicted Monday.
Right now, one climate-linked disaster generally hits at a time, whether it’s forest fires destroying swathes of California, hurricanes flooding Texas and Louisiana and completely devastating Puerto Rico, or heat waves killing thousands in Europe. By 2100, unless something drastic changes, a new report predicts regions will start dealing with multiple disasters all at once.
“It’s just going to be crazy. We cannot imagine what will happen when all these things happen at the same time,” said Camilo Mora, a geography and environment researcher at the University of Hawaii who led the study team.
Mora’s team combed through more than 3,200 studies to try to paint a broad picture of what climate change is going to do to people over the coming century. They cross-referenced their findings against known disasters.
“We wanted to look only at examples were climate change had already caused an effect,” Mora told NBC News. “The evidence was absolutely mind-blowing to me.”
The disasters they looked at included drought, warmer temperatures, floods, heavy rain and blizzards, heat waves, fires, sea level rise, storms, changes in the natural land cover and changes in ocean chemistry. “We found 27 attributes of human health impacted by climate hazards, of which death, disease and mental health were the most commonly observed,” Mora’s team wrote in their report, published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
People can die from heat stress, drown during hurricanes, starve during droughts and suffocate in fires. Disease patterns can change as the insects that carry disease proliferate and spread yellow fever, malaria and dengue. The destruction of forests spreads disease, also, the team said.
“For instance, forest fragmentation increased the density of ticks near people, triggering outbreaks of Lyme disease and encephalitis, fires drove fruit bats closer to towns, causing outbreaks of the Hendra and Nipah viruses, drought mobilized livestock near cities, causing outbreaks of hemorrhagic fever, and melting ice due to warming caused voles to find shelter in homes, increasing hantavirus infections,” they wrote.
Changes in ocean chemistry help cause deadly red tides and can favor the spread of cholera, they added. “Drought forced the use of unsafe drinking water, resulting in outbreaks of diarrhea, cholera and dysentery,” they added.
Fires across California and elsewhere worsen asthma and can lead to long-term health problems including heart disease, lung disease and cancer, they noted.
And climate hazards have already affected mental health. “For instance, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder were reported after storms in the United States, floods in the United Kingdom and heat waves in France,” they wrote. Loss of sea ice has led to depression among Inuit people who have increasing trouble hunting and fishing.
“Every single aspect of human life was impacted — the food and water you eat and drink, the air. It’s making people more vulnerable to violence and forcing people out of their homes. How much of a horror movie do you want?” Mora said.
And these are things that have already happened. “I think that it is already pretty bad. Just ask the people in California and Florida,” Mora said. “Now the choices are bad or terrible.”
The rise of sea levels gets much of the attention that is focused on climate change, but other disasters are already occurring and will become more common, affecting people on every continent whether they live on the coasts or inland. “The evidence is pretty loud and clear,” Mora said.
“This is what we are doing to ourselves by being so careless with the release of greenhouse gases. That, to me, is the definition of stupidity: doing something that you know will hurt you.”
But, he said, there are solutions.
“I am very optimistic that it can be reversed altogether,” he said. “Not only do we have the technology to reduce emissions, but we can restore the ecosystems of the planet.”
One example: planting trees. For instance, depending on the species, one tree planted in Hawaii can pull a ton of carbon out of the atmosphere in 10 years, because trees take up carbon dioxide.
“It is not just about turning out the lights or walking instead of driving,” Mora said.
So the university began a challenge to try to encourage people to plant trees to offset their own energy use. The idea came from Mora’s 11-year-old daughter Asryelle Mora Rollo. The university held an event over the weekend to gauge public interest.
“Nearly 200 people came to set the record of planting 1,000 trees in one day. We ended up doing it in just two hours,” Mora said. “For the USA that could mean upwards of billions of trees if everyone does their small contribution,” he added.
It’s something individuals can do on their own or in small groups, Mora said. “It is low-hanging fruit,” he said. “The easiest solution here is for us to stop expecting politicians to do something.”