Climate Change: A New Reason to Act on Old Recommendations

by Margaret Clune Giblin

November 05, 2008

Climate change is such an unprecedented challenge that sometimes it can seem overwhelming to think through its full range of impacts, let alone develop policy solutions to address them. Yet as policymakers delve into the details of the many ways in which climate change will impact global societies and the environment, the most promising solutions frequently turn out to have a distinctly familiar ring. Often, they are measures that have long been recommended for reasons that, although intensified by climate change, also stand alone.


Take, for example, one of the principal threats to public health posed by climate change. A little while ago, the Washington Post focused on the increases in waterborne diseases that warmer waters and heavier rainfalls caused by global warming will herald. “Rainfalls will be heavier, triggering sewage overflows, contaminating drinking water and endangering beachgoers. Higher lake and ocean temperatures will cause bacteria, parasites and algal blooms to flourish. Warmer weather and heavier rains will mean more mosquitoes, which can carry the West Nile virus, malaria, and dengue fever. Fresh produce and shellfish are more likely to become contaminated.”


The Post article points out that 950 U.S. cities and towns with “combined sewer systems” will be especially hard hit. These outdated systems carry storm water and sewage in the same pipes, and during heavy rains, can’t handle the volume. The result is discharges of untreated effluent – raw sewage from sinks and toilets – into lakes or waterways, including sources of drinking water. These combined sewer overflows have long been a cause for concern, and clean water advocates have long urged upgrades for the sewer systems. So, as it turns out, one of the best ways to improve our defenses against a major public health threat posed by climate change is something we know we ought to do anyway.


This theme came up at a recent conference on climate change co-sponsored by CPR. On October 17, CPR Member Scholars Victor Flatt and Donald Hornstein hosted a workshop at the University of North Carolina School of Law entitled Adapting Legal Regimes in the Face of Climate Change. Scholars from schools across the nation, including CPR Member Scholars, gathered to examine how legal systems across a broad range of substantive areas should be altered in the face of climate change, and to address what principles should govern the needed changes. Professor Robin Kundis Craig of the Florida State University College of Law gave a presentation entitled Sea-Level Rise and Public Health: A Starting Point for Climate Change Adaptation?, in which she detailed public health impacts of climate change, and policy solutions to address them. Her three principal examples were: 1) contaminated drinking water; 2) increased disease; and 3) contaminants borne by rising sea levels – including, for example, contaminants from Superfund and other hazardous waste sites in coastal areas.  Solutions to these threats included, respectively: 1) ensuring that there are adequate and protected drinking water supplies over a long-term planning horizon; 2) ensuring adequate medical treatment for likely increases in disease and toxic exposure; and 3) finishing cleanup of existing hazardous waste sites along the coast as soon as possible.


All of these solutions, like upgrading outdated combined sewer systems, are things we’ve long known we ought to be doing anyway. So, maybe as a first step to overcoming the feeling of paralysis that can take over in the face of the sheer magnitude of the challenges climate change will bring, policymakers should dust off some tried-and-true recommendations, and view climate change as the opportunity to finally galvanize the political will to implement them.

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