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Cows, Mosquitoes, Climate Change

By Scott Hamilton, MD
September 30, 2021
Hamilton Blog Headshot Updated 12.21.21

My youngest daughter swore off beef. Not because too much is bad for you, or cows are mistreated in industrial feed lots. She instead wants everyone to eat less beef because the cattle industry is a big contributor to, believe it or not, climate change! It takes lots of fuel to feed, grow and ship as many cows as we do, and they excrete tons of methane, a gas which directly contributes to global warming. She's still okay with chicken and fish, but then she learned pigs were as smart as dogs...

England's University of Bath recently published a large-scale study on teens' and young adults' anxiety about climate change. They surveyed more than 10,000 kids between ages 16 and 25, and found the great majority felt “the future is frightening” regarding the planet's health. Particularly, they perceived that governments weren't doing nearly enough to avoid environmental catastrophe. Their emotional responses included sadness, fear, anger, powerlessness and guilt.

There is lots to be anxious about. Just ask any South Louisiana resident since 2016 if the environment has gotten more dangerous. 2016 saw an unprecedented day's rain that caused flooding in Lafayette, including houses in my neighborhood. Then multiple storms ravaged the Lake Charles area. Then Ida. And then adding injury to injury, Nicholas rained into all those roofless homes. 

On a larger scale, it's clear, and already happening, that climate change is leading to food shortages around the world. It's contributing to economic inequality and political instability, which in turn fuels unrest, protests, violence and war. Well-fed people, fairly treated, with safe homes and neighborhoods and hope for the future, don't breed terrorism. When the only home you can afford is in a flood zone...

The comic strip Pearls Before Swine recently ran a series about Africa's deadliest animals. They're not lions or tigers: hippopotamuses kill many more people, and the hippo in the strip laments that they “get no respect.” The next day's comic featured a mosquito arguing that just because no one goes on safari to see them, they're even more impressive for their death toll on humans. Pig and Zebra conclude that mosquitoes are overly sensitive—and traveling to Africa to see mosquitoes “sounds like a bad safari.”

While above we discussed kids' anxiety about global warming effects (floods, hurricanes, economic crisis), climate change also directly impacts child health. For example, the sensitive mosquito was right: They kill more humans, including kids, by injecting deadly infections like Malaria and Zika virus. And global warming is contributing to increased mosquito populations.

Vehicle and industry output also gets kids in their lungs. Asthma is the most common chronic illness in children, can make them seriously ill and is on the rise. Air pollution in the form of ozone, soot and other toxins can irritate lung tissue. Airways tighten up to keep out those insults, but in turn keep out good air as well, and the child becomes short of breath.

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are also increasing with global temperatures. More and more kids are overheating playing outdoors or when left in cars. Sports practices are being moved to earlier and later times to avoid the hottest part of the day, and research is looking at technology to help parents avoid forgetting children in cars. These measures may protect individual kids, but the world also needs you to make less heat for everyone. Burn less gas and energy. Support government policies to protect the environment. And don't forget the mosquito spray.

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