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As MSU students dispersed from campus for an extended Winter Break, scientists and public health experts gathered (online) for the release of a new report describing the impact of climate change on the health of Montanans. The Montana Institute on Ecosystems released the report, “Climate Change and Human Health in Montana: A Special Report of the Montana Climate Assessment”, also known as C2H2, on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020. 

C2H2 builds on the findings of the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment (MCA), which analyzed historic trends and climate models to predict the repercussions of climate change on water, forests and agriculture in the state. The authors of C2H2 looked at the same type of data with a different lens to determine how the health of Montana’s physical environment is likely to impact the health of its human inhabitants. 

Increasing average temperatures were identified by the authors as a primary area of concern for public health. According to the MCA, average temperatures in Montana are predicted to increase 4.5-6 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century. By the year 2099, temperatures are expected to increase 5.4-9.8 degrees Fahrenheit. 

“What concerns us most is the extremely warm days, days over 90 degrees [Fahrenheit], which we think by the end of the century we’ll get more than a month of those compared to what we get today,” said Cathy Whitlock, an author of the report and regents professor of Earth science at MSU, during the press conference for the release of C2H2.

Extreme heat poses a risk to public health because it increases the prevalence of heat-related illnesses, especially among people working outdoors frequently. This risk is especially concentrated in the Eastern part of Montana because of the large amount of people working in agriculture. 

The physical health threat posed to agricultural workers by increasing temperature is compounded by threats to the security of crops, such as drought, wildfire and lower crop yields, which the authors say may take a toll on mental health. According to a 2020 MSU study of 125 Montana farmers and ranchers cited in C2H2, almost three quarters of respondents said they felt moderate to high levels of anxiety when thinking about the impact of climate change on agricultural business. 

Workers in Montana’s ski tourism industry are likely to feel similar health impacts, as Montana’s average snowpack is projected to continue decreasing through the century according to the MCA. 

“We all in the healthcare community are aware that having a job and having job security is one of the most important social determinants of health,” said Lori Byron, a report author and Chair of Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate.

Another area of concern identified in the report, especially for Montanans living near forested areas, was a reduction in air quality due to the increasing amount and size of wildfires in the state. The frequency of wildfires, as well as the amount of hazardous smoke, increases with climate change because drought creates warm, dry conditions where a fire is more likely to start and is harder to stop. Wildfire smoke contains particulate matter that can cause or worsen respiratory conditions, such as asthma, or cardiovascular conditions such as heart failure. If greenhouse gas emissions continue unobstructed, C2H2 predicts that the number of summer days with extreme fire danger in Montana will increase by 10 by the middle of the century. Years with heavy fire activity are predicted to be mixed with years of average or low fire activity.

Third among the primary health concerns described by C2H2 is an increase in “climate surprises”, which are unexpected weather events such as extreme storms or flooding.

Communities with decreased access to health services, people with chronic conditions and people living in poverty will be most vulnerable to these public health threats.

John Doyle, Director of the Crow Water Quality Project and one of a group of panel members present at the press conference for the release of C2H2, spoke about the impact of coal mining job loss on the Crow reservation as a result of climate change. He also spoke about the additional damage of COVID-19 on the Crow community.

“When you’re in a community that is already completely stressed from no money, no jobs, very very deep poverty, then you throw this into the mix, and you can see what climate change will mean to many many people in a different time in the future,” Doyle said.

The authors described further overlapping health issues presented by climate change, including damage to water quality, increased transmission of diseases from animals to humans and threats to food security.

“Climate change is often thought of as a threat multiplier,” said Rob Byron, another author of C2H2 and vice-chair of Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate. “In many cases it makes things that already exist much worse.” 

The authors of C2H2 aimed to create a resource that hadn’t existed before in Montana in order to confront those threats. The project, which was peer-reviewed and involved public input, began in 2018 with a workshop of 23 climate scientists, health professionals, and stakeholder representatives. “We want to send a message of hope by providing individuals, communities, and healthcare facilities small and large actionable ways to mitigate and adapt to these changes,” said Alexandra Adams, lead author of C2H2 and Director for the Center for American Indian and Rural Health Equity. 

C2H2 recommends a variety of solutions for addressing climate change on the public health front, including the development of a state-wide public health network to plan for climate adaptation and improvement of climate data collection and sharing.

Both the MCA and C2H2 can be accessed at montanaclimate.org.