No Snow for Christmas in the Big Apple: The Health Implications of Mismatched Weather

By path2positive

Preparing for a final round of 2015 work travel, I pulled down my suitcase and, before selecting my wardrobe, conferred with my personal assistant. “Hey Siri, what’s the weather look like in New York City for the next three days?” “High temperatures are expected to be in the mid-60’s,” came the reply. You can bet that I checked my weather app not once, but twice, just to confirm that I could indeed trust Siri and leave my coat, gloves, and scarf behind.

This December in Washington D.C., we’ve also had a spate of historically unseasonable warm weather accompanying holiday cookie making and caroling parties. Putting up decorations in jeans and a t-shirt brought me back to the strangeness I’d felt as a young girl growing up in Las Vegas, humming “White Christmas” while strolling under the desert skies at the annual Holiday Cactus Lighting. Though the winter wind there could be chilling, it felt like we snowless celebrators were perpetually trying a bit too hard to conjure the “real thing” enjoyed by those with fluffy snow instead of my family’s spray-on white flocked trees. Atmospheric scientists tell us this year’s strong El Nino-influenced weather pattern, not just global warming, is responsible for the record-breaking warmth across the northeast region. With 2015 shaping up to be the warmest year on record, my early training in how to imagine and “create” a White Christmas may be called upon more frequently, despite now living in a colder climate.   

Upon arrival in New York City, I greeted my favorite urban wonderland by taking a few spins around historic Washington Square Park. On the one hand, the weather was truly balmy and beautiful – but I overheard a number of people expressing that, while the warmth was nice, it “just didn’t feel right,” making me consider if the restrained enjoyment of an unseasonably warm winter’s day could be attributed to growing awareness and concern about our changing climate. Then I remembered that many of these were likely “Hurricane Sandy” veterans, far more familiar and disquieted than most of us by the implications of mismatched weather.

Heading over to the NYU Institute for Public Knowledge, I was eager to participate in a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-sponsored conference, “Will Climate Change Health?” where 30 of the nation’s prominent climate and health researchers and graduate students from a diversity of scientific fields were coming together to explore climate and health issues. Against the backdrop of an autumnal winter’s day, the event kicked off with a pre-screening of a poignant new documentary, “Cooked” which chronicles the political, social, and economic factors underlying the death of nearly 800 Chicago citizens during the city’s extreme 1995 heat wave. The sobering screening was followed by Climate for Health’s Dr. Howard Frumkin, Dean of the University of Washington School of Public Health, whose keynote provided a comprehensive 360 of the wide-ranging health impacts associated with a warming planet.

Because climate change affects such a wide variety of disciplines, the conference included sociologists, communication experts, engineers, social ecologists, medical doctors and more, all grappling with what we know and what still needs to be discovered in order to effectively address its impacts on present and future generations. Panels covered topics such as extreme weather events, disease and population health, critical infrastructure, and the framing of risk. The presentations were brief but provocative, offering deep and fast seven-minute overviews that illuminated what we currently understand, the critical gaps that research funding has been slow to address, and the implications of both for influencing the policy we will need locally and at scale. Dr. Eric Klineberg, the driving force behind the conference and director of the NYU Institute of Public Knowledge, will be working to distill the conference highlights and translate them into an agenda for what’s next. Stay tuned for that report.

In the meantime, I’m still ruminating on two particular takeaways:

1) Again and again, the discussions reflected the kind of systems thinking and facile minds that climate change is calling forward. Despite the long-standing, steep challenge of attracting funding for interdisciplinary planning and research, the experts at that table (and the ones we most need today and tomorrow) are those who can think both within and beyond their own silos. As the first double-major faculty engineer/sociologist I’ve ever met noted, the structural integrity of buildings is just one factor influencing community resilience and capacity for “bounce back” following severe weather disasters. How do we build in redundancies of protection that include societal elements? While we absolutely need to train and encourage the next generation to become climate experts within their own frame, that is no longer enough. Climate change complexity has neither precedence nor equivalency as a public issue, and ensuring cross-discipline exposure and pollination will require nothing short of a culture change within our institutions of higher education. Research funding that supports interdisciplinary learning and problem-solving will be a big piece of driving this shift forward.

2) Social/psychological health deserves a bigger seat at the table when we are talking about climate and its health impacts. Dr. David Grazian gave a fascinating, high-level overview of what it means when deeply symbolic features of the natural world begin to radically change or disappear. What happens, for example, at the social-emotional level when one of our nation’s iconic natural treasures, Glacier National Park, can no longer claim its namesake? And what does it mean for those of us alert to climate change when we hear a television news team celebrate with glee that the high temperature would be 63 degrees on December 15th? Was there something more to my pang of dread than too much climate worry and knowledge getting in the way of simply enjoying the gift of a beautiful day? What happens when the weather patterns we associate with holidays, such as a “White Christmas” in New York City, become a rarity? Humans are wonderfully improvisational, of course. And if you’re a Vegas gal like myself, I suppose there is always more spray snow to be found. But something tells me that’s probably not the healthiest way to experience a white Christmas.

This coming year, Climate for Health will be teaming up with the American Psychological Association to take a deeper dive into the many mental health impacts of climate change. We look forward to including this topic in a spring 2016 climate and health webinar series co-hosted through ecoAmerica’s partnership with the APHA. We hope you’ll join us and weigh in on these and other climate and health topics in the year ahead. For now, happiest holidays wishes to you and yours.


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