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Saturday, June 4, 2011

Public forum concerns effects of climate change

MANCHESTER – A public forum held today to discuss links between the warming climate and health problems will feature not only scientists who have studied the issue but also an unusual participant: a high-ranking Republican official who’s concerned about climate change.

U.S. Rep. Charles Bass, R-N.H., will make remarks at the free forum, which was called to discuss a report titled “Climate Change and Your Health” and published by the Union for Concerned Scientists. But that doesn’t mean he agrees with its main point.

The report argues the Earth’s rising temperature would, among other things, lead to the creation of more ground-level ozone that would worsen respiratory illnesses, costing millions or even billions of health care dollars.

“Even a small increase in ozone due to a warmer climate would have a significant impact on public health,” said Union for Concerned Scientists public health analyst Liz Perera, a report coauthor. “It would mean more asthma attacks, respiratory illnesses, emergency room trips and premature deaths.”

Perera and three other specialists will attend a forum, “Health Consequences of a Warming Climate,” at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester at 10 a.m. today.

Bass is attending at the request of former GOP state Sen. Jim Rubens, a friend and member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, but he says he’s dubious about health claims.

“The environment will change,” Bass said in a phone interview Thursday. “Whether more people get asthma or not is interesting, but there may be a lot more people who don’t die of pneumonia because it’s warmer.”

Bass said he believes that the focus on health questions is just a tactical measure made in the face of the failure of efforts such as the Waxman-Markey bill, which sought unsuccessfully to establish a national cap-and-trade program to limit carbon emissions by utilities and industries.

“Advocates have tacked like a sailboat might and gone off in the health impact direction,” he said.

Unlike many in his party, however, Bass does agree with the basic tenets of climate change.

“There is credible evidence to conclude that the climate is getting warmer, and there will be impacts associated with this warming,” he said.

Bass also agreed that human activity appears to be contributing to the problem – noting that he, along with then-Sen. Judd Gregg, introduced carbon-regulation legislation as far back as 1995.

This is an unpopular public stance for Republican lawmakers, since the party depicts climate change as a question that’s open to debate at best and a conspiracy fueled by environmental paranoia and anti-business agendas at worst.

In New Hampshire, this attitude is most visible in the effort by House Republicans to remove New Hampshire from a cap-and-trade program called RGGI that’s operating in 10 Northeastern states.

By contrast, the Union of Concerned Scientists, following the lead of a large majority of the American scientific community, argues that the global climate already is warming in part because of human activity – notably, the release of carbon into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has advocated a variety of legislative and regulatory actions to reduce carbon emissions.

The latest report urges the Environmental Protection Agency to “strengthen its current standards for ozone and ozone-forming pollutants” and says the U.S. should “address both ozone pollution and climate change by investing in more fuel-efficient cars, reducing miles driven and using more renewable energy sources – such as wind, solar and geothermal – to generate electricity.”

Analysis in the report said ozone increases from climate change likely could result in 2.8 million additional serious respiratory illnesses, 5,100 additional infants and seniors hospitalized with serious breathing problems, and 944,000 additional missed school days in the United States in 2020.

These and other health-related influences could cost Americans about $5.4 billion in 2020.

“The good news is we can address both ozone pollution and climate change by cutting fossil fuel emissions,” said Todd Sanford, a Union of Concerned Scientists climate scientist and report coauthor.

“Doing that would protect public health, the environment and the economy.”

David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or