4/23/2021 Peter Durantine

Climate Change: ‘Health is the Human Face of Climate’

Warm winters followed by polar vortexes to February tornadoes and spring deluges to hot summers with ticks and mosquitos that carry Lyme disease and Zika virus--Lancaster County hasn’t escaped the mounting effects of human-made climate change.

The changes are a dangerous local public health problem, warned Alan Peterson, physician and emeritus director of community and environmental health at Lancaster General Hospital who spoke on the eve of Earth Day, April 21, at Franklin & Marshall College’s Common Hour.

Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Eric Hirsch introduced Peterson, who for years has been speaking about climate change to audiences across south central Pennsylvania. 

“We first met three years ago when I was teaching a senior seminar course called ‘Climate Change Dilemmas,”’ Hirsch said. “I wanted to know more about how humans face climate change right here in Lancaster.”

  • Global temperature change in the last 50 years, Global temperature change in the last 50 years, Image Credit: NASA

While he “scoured the community” for experts to share their views with his classes, Hirsch, whose curriculum examines the various effects of climate change, was surprised to hear Peterson’s perspectives.

“Not only is he really observant about the many subtle ways climate change touches our health in the context of our daily lives, he also gives us a pathway forward,” the professor said. “He’s determined for us not to fall into the lazy momentum of being overwhelmed and suggests that even if climate change is a massive structural problem, we can all contribute to overcoming it.”

Ninety seven percent of climatologists agree that climate change is happening and is caused by humans. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that humankind has about 10 years to make significant changes in fossil-fuel use or humanity may reach a “tipping point” that may make it impossible to enjoy the Earth as we do today.

In a more than 40-year career, Peterson has served on boards that address major public health issues, including chairman of the Lancaster County Immunization Coalition, climate ambassador for the National Physicians for Social Responsibility and board member of the Lancaster Partnership for Public Health. 

“I’d like to start off with a quote from The New York Times,” Peterson said, citing a sobering statistic as Common Hour began. “The heat accumulating in the Earth because of human emissions is roughly equal to the heat that would be released by 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs exploding across the planet every day.”

A photo of a mother and her two young children appeared on the screen of Peterson’s slideshow and he said, “Health is the human face of climate. A lot of folks have asked, ‘Why have you been giving these talks for seven to eight years in south central Pennsylvania?’ And these are three of the reasons: This is my daughter and my two granddaughters at Climbers Run in southern Lancaster County. My son is in Oregon … he and his wife are expecting my first grandson.”

Before Peterson went over the cause – human-produced greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere and alter the climate with increasingly disastrous effects on public health that fall disproportionately on the socially marginalized – he referred to his grandchildren.  

“If we don’t make some changes now in our fossil-fuel use, their lives will be nothing like our lives in the world,” he said.

Despite the struggles politically and diplomatically to make the change from fossil fuels to non-heat-producing alternative and renewable energy sources, Peterson sounded hopeful that humanity can overcome the challenges.

“Thirteen thousand scientists from over 153 countries now say that climate change is a ‘crisis,’ but with a concerted action, we [can] create a healthy and safe community for our families and our children,” he said. “But we have to make the change now.” 

Peterson said patience and respect is required in dealing with those who refuse to believe climate change is occurring, and that includes policymakers.

“Some people’s minds you’re not going to change, but we just can’t be stopped by these folks; we have to go on to the next person and we have to start the conversation,” he said. “Do they really care about their children’s and their grandchildren’s lives? Sooner or later, and hopefully it’s sooner, they will catch on.” 

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