Missoula summit explores impacts of climate change on health, poverty

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Climate Smart Missoula hosted the Community Health and Climate Summit in downtown Missoula on Friday, which included breakout sessions on a number of issues related to fire smoke, mental health and poverty. (Photo by Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston

Western Montana will likely grow hotter and wetter by mid-century, with temperatures increasing as much as 6 degrees, a research scientist told a crowd gathered for the Community Health Climate Summit in Missoula on Friday.

Hosted by Climate Smart Missoula, the summit explored the implications of a changing climate, including impacts on the physical and psychological health of area residents. It also showcased new tools and strategies aimed at improving the health of vulnerable populations across Missoula.

“There’s acknowledgment and truth that if we work locally, we can be bold and make the changes we really want to see,” said Amy Cilimburg, director of Climate Smart Missoula. “If we all work together, hopefully we’ll avoid those worst-case scenarios.”

Over the coming decades, climate change is expected to make western Montana hotter, shorten the number of days below freezing and lengthen the wildfire season. While the changes hold environmental concerns, they also pose a threat to human health, particularly the city’s most vulnerable citizens.

Samer Khoder, a physician at Providence St. Patrick Hospital, said the health-care industry must work to get ahead of the curve by preventing disease and reducing the environmental factors that contribute to poor health.

“Heat and smoke directly impact us and our ability to do anything,” said Khodor. “It affects our psychological well-being as well – you can’t disconnect the mind and body. The smoke affects the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.”

The Montana Climate Office is working on an impact assessment that applied 20 different climate models to project the future. The results consider different carbon emission scenarios, including a model with lower emissions and another where the human population continues at its current pace.

Nick Silverman, a research scientist with the office, said under the lesser scenario, temperatures are expected to increase by 4.5 degrees. Under the higher scenario, they could jump more than 6 degrees by mid-century and 10 degrees by the year 2100.

“That’s annual temperature average,” said Silverman. “We’re looking at about 11 days more each year that reach above 90 degrees. We can also look at the minimum temperatures and the number of freeze-free days. We’re losing almost a month and half of days where we used to freeze and don’t anymore by mid-century.”

While the shoulder seasons of spring and fall look wetter in the future, the summer months become drier. With warmer winters and longer summers, Silverman said, the result could exacerbate the fire season, leaving western Montana choked with smoky air.

“It’s going to get hot no matter how you look at it, or where you’re located,” said Silverman. “In Montana, it’s virtually certain that the temperature is increasing. These changes will have impacts. That’s where the science is, figuring out where the impacts are.”

While the impacts are likely to hold environmental consequences, they could also impact human health, something Climate Smart Missoula and the Missoula City-County Health Department are working to plan for.

Lisa Beczkiewicz with the health department said a new data-rich, interactive map will go live in the coming weeks. Along with observational studies of low-wage neighborhoods and a pending community health survey, the efforts are intended to address an array of health issues in vulnerable populations.

“What we know in Missoula County is that we have a 16 percent adult population that’s obese, and 20 percent for the city,” said Beczkiewicz, noting that obesity in some Missoula neighborhoods runs as high as 27 percent. “That’s a huge discrepancy and it’s not okay.”

Aided by data embedded in the Missoula Community Health Map, health and planning experts can hone in on an underserved neighborhood that may lack access to parks and trails. It can also look at poverty levels in neighborhoods and search for correlations to health issues.

That, Beczkiewicz said, can help community leaders address the factors contributing to poor community health.

“This is where your inter-generational poverty lies,” she said, indicating two Missoula neighborhoods. “Over 20 percent of these neighborhoods have had over 30 years of poverty. That’s hard, it’s a long time and it’s difficult to change. But I know in Missoula that we can help these people make the healthier choice, the easier choice for them.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com