As the debate drones on over global warming, La Crosse County is in a pilot project to help people brace themselves to counteract the negative health and economic consequences of climate changes, regardless of their causes.
“Our aim is to provide solutions rather than argue and point fingers,” said Al Bliss, a health educator with the La Crosse County Health Department.
“It’s not to point blame at who or what is causing it,” said Bliss, who also is local project coordinator of the federal Building Resilience Against Climate Effects Climate and Health Program, or BRACE.
La Crosse County is one of four areas in Wisconsin to receive BRACE funding. The others in the initiative of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are the Eau Claire Consortium, consisting of Eau Claire, Dunn, Pepin and Buffalo counties; St. Croix County; and Wood and Portage counties.
A meeting that BRACE convened for about 30 community stakeholders homed in on the top concerns: heat, cold, drought and precipitation events.
“Research shows we are seeing a warming and wetter Wisconsin,” Bliss said.
Midwest Regional Climate Center statistics confirm that assessment, reporting that the Badger State receives about two more inches of rain a year than it did in the early 1950s.
Despite drought conditions of the past few years, the center’s crunching of 120 years of data discovered that six of the top 20 years for annual rainfall have occurred since 2000.
Between 1958 and 2012, heavy rain events in the Midwest rose 37 percent, according to the National Climate Assessment’s three-year study released in 2014.
Scientific models ranging from worldwide projections to the local level generally agree that extreme weather events are becoming the norm, said Megan Christenson, Wisconsin’s BRACE epidemiologist.
“These wild swings in weather make it difficult to plan for and respond to events,” Christenson said. “To begin to address the health impacts of a changing climate, we need to make it a collaborative and community effort aimed at those of greatest risk and driven forward by the public health community.”
BRACE will study the domino effects of such conditions, Bliss said.
Some results include the potential for Lyme disease increasing again as ticks flourish when precipitation and heat rise, the likelihood of major mosquito hatches resulting from wet weather and the ramifications for humans and cities’ infrastructures, Bliss said.
The brutal winter last year created a surge in the numbers of homeless seeking shelter, creating the need for additional emergency refuges and leading to the expansion of the La Crosse Warming Center this past winter, he said.
Extreme weather also can increase the numbers of people seeking mental health services related to climate change, he said.
“We’re talking about public health. We’re trying to create awareness instead of stirring the pot so key leaders and organizations can work on these concerns,” he said.
“Some people might disagree with the trend of thought that the globe is warming and sea level is rising,” Bliss said, “but it does matter that these impacts are happening.”
The conditions degrade infrastructures such as streets, and cause public and private property damage, he said, adding that other offshoots include surface and ground water contamination, molds, and harmful algal blooms that cause human and animal diseases.
“I don’t live in a flood plain, but I had to remove carpet after a heavy rain because it was turning moldy,” which is a health hazard, he said.
“It’s not just public health, but also the economy, affecting property and households,” he said.
Among other things, BRACE is designed to prompt discussion of the climate changes and their effects, Bliss said.
“One of the main reasons is if we know the impacts, we can be better prepared for heat waves, and for rain and snow,” he said.
BRACE is intended to gather public health officials, emergency management personnel and community members in general to devise plans to erase the adverse effects, Bliss said.
“Our first strategy is to increase awareness by providing information to the community about extreme weather and climate-related public health concerns,” he said. “Informal meetings, presentations, and discussion will help increase capacity to address climate and extreme weather health impacts in La Crosse County.”