Discover magazine Contributing Editor describes her soon-to-be-released non-fiction book as a ‘natural off-shoot’ of her news reporting on climate change. One suggestion: a ‘medical Marshall Plan.’
During the scorching and dry 2012 summer across much of North America, West Nile virus spread across the U.S., made 4,500 people sick, and resulted in 183 deaths. Outbreaks of Dengue fever and Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome also occurred. Scores of Americans suffered health consequences from poor air quality, heat waves, and fires.
And then came “Superstorm Sandy,” fueled by abnormally high ocean temperatures along the Atlantic seaboard. Sandy crashed into a massive cold front from Canada — driven by the exceptional melting of Arctic ice in September. The result created a hybrid storm of unprecedented proportions and destruction, and another public health nightmare echoing the perils that Hurricane Katrina had visited on New Orleans and parts of Mississippi in 2005.
Yale Forum regular contributor Lisa Palmer spoke about the world’s preparedness for projected serious and sweeping health effects of climate change with Marsa, who has covered medicine, health and science for more than two decades.
Fevered is a timely reminder that society appears largely to be failing to prepare our health and public health systems for the risks associated with continuing climate change. In it, Marsa calls for American leadership to establish a worldwide “medical Marshall plan” against rising temperatures she finds will have a devastating effect on human health. Marsa’s engaging style and her liking for meticulous research help build a well-written, compelling narrative.
An edited transcript of the interview, conducted by phone on May 29, 2013:
Yale Forum: In Fevered, you provide a glimpse into what will happen to our health as the planet gets hotter, has increasing amounts of carbon pollution, increases in natural disasters, and poor air quality, among other consequences. With so much happening in our own back yard, how did you begin reporting this narrative?
Marsa: I wanted to find stories here in the U.S. that give us a window into what climate change is going to look like. There are pockets in the country where climate change is really already starting to have an effect. When I first started the book, I knew I was going to cover Hurricane Katrina because the public health system hadn’t recovered. We don’t realize the aftermath that happens. I went to New Orleans a year ago. This was seven years after Katrina, and the public health system remained unacceptably primitive.
I met a doctor who told me this terrible story where they didn’t have facility to test sputum. A patient obviously had tuberculosis, but she couldn’t test him. He was coughing all over everybody. She could either send the sputum 500 miles away or put him on a bus to Baton Rouge to get the test, a move which would infect more people.
A year after Katrina, five doctors committed suicide. It’s not just poor people or the disenfranchised that are affected, but it’s people like you and me that are really starting to be affected.
Climate change is very abstract. And the challenge of the book was trying to bring this story to life. And that was hard.
Yale Forum: Why did you focus mostly on the U.S. and where we are experiencing the health effects of a changing planet?
Marsa: Even after Superstorm Sandy, some Americans still feel insulated from the hazards they believe will occur in a distant future and that the effects of a warming planet will be felt mostly in impoverished nations.
But we know that is simply not the case. That’s why I kept the book focused mainly on what’s happening here in the U.S.
Yale Forum: The book’s main focus is the U.S., so why did you spend a month reporting on climate and health in Australia?
Marsa: Once I got the book contract I knew I wanted to go to Australia. I wanted to see what unrestrained climate change looked like in an advanced industrial democracy. It’s easy to say, “Oh it’s terrible in Bangladesh because they are having all this flooding.” I was looking for stories that illuminate the reality of what climate change is like in a society comparable to that of the U.S.
It’s easy to dismiss it. But when you go to a place like Australia with these wildfires, and everything else going on, and what’s happening to the Australians… Research shows that 25 percent of the population is suffering from depression and disaster fatigue.
Yale Forum: Tell me how you came to the conclusion that global warming has created a “climate of suffering” in Australia. What’s going on there?
Marsa: I drove all over the bush and I went into the farm country. In St. George, which is about 500 miles east of Brisbane, I interviewed one guy who lives on the river. He told me about having 100-year flood events twice in the past year. He gestured toward the river and said all of the houses are empty and people aren’t coming back. And that was chilling to me!
And the other thing that is happening, and it was somewhat documented but I got to see it firsthand: In Australia the farmers don’t have subsidies they have in the U.S. A lot of Australian farmers went bankrupt because they had a 12-year drought. About 10,000 farm families were dispossessed of the land. They were having suicides at the rate of three or four a week. And kids were on suicide watch. This was incredible. It was that kind of stuff I saw over and over again.
The country itself is under siege. That is what struck me. There’s a real national community spirit, and they feel like they are under siege because they are just getting walloped by ferocious fires, terrible cyclones, and these floods that cover maybe a quarter of the land mass.
Yale Forum: You write about warming ocean temperatures and discuss making the connection to the dust bowl.
Marsa: A one-degree change occurred in the surface ocean temperatures and that had an effect on what happened in the dust bowl. Some people think with climate change, “Well, it’s only going to change 2 degrees, why should this worry us?” But here we had this devastation that happened. I tried to be rigorous about it. There was a lot of things that happened in the dust bowl, lot of things. They got away with their bad behavior as long as it continued raining, but once it stopped raining all bets were off.
Yale Forum: What do you want people to take away from the book?
Marsa: I want to make people aware of how climate change affects them right now.
Climate change seems like an abstract concept. We have normal variations in weather, and we are having changes in ecosystems and things are getting hotter. Like the frog in the pot, you don’t notice that it’s getting hotter and hotter.
As a medical writer, I wanted to help people understand that this is affecting us right now and to our detriment. The subtext always is that people don’t make changes until they don’t have any choice but to make changes.
Linda Marsa, author of Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health and How We Can Save Ourselves (Rodale, 2013).