Health Effects of “Climate Disruption” Discussed at WVU

Feb 15, 2015

Brent McCusker, PhD; Yong-Lak Park, PhD; Heather Basara, PhD

  “Climate Change and Population Health” was the title of a recent discussion at West Virginia University. Three panelists, a social scientist, an entomologist, and a public health expert turned over research and health concerns related to that research on climate change - or as the discussion moderator, Interim Chair of the Department of Health Policy, Management, and Leadership in the WVU School of Public Health, Robert Duval, was more apt to call it: Climate Disruption.


"Disruption" v. "Warming" in the Mountain State

Duval explained that while many areas on the globe are experiencing less precipitation, West Virginia is forecast to see more precipitation - in extremes. Panelists made a point to talk about increased “climate variability” which is science-speak for “unpredictable weather patterns”.

“We do have an increase in extreme precipitation events [in West Virginia] whether that’s drought or floods,” Duval said. “We’re actually shifting to call it Global Climate Disruption.”

Panelist Brent McCuster, Associate Chair of Geography in the WVU Eberly College of Arts and Science, further spelled out what that means for West Virginians. McCusker says there are several factors that leave residents in the state at especially high risk in the face of climate disruption threats - factors such as living in poverty … or in river valleys. 

“If we had everyone living on the tops of hills in West Virginia it wouldn’t be an issue but that’s not the case,” said McCusker.

He went on to explain that the populations in the state that are least capable of coping with extreme weather events are the ones most likely to take the brunt of environmental disruption.

Health Concerns

McCusker's thoughts were echoed by Professor in the WVU Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences, Heather Basara. She’s been studying health effects of climate change on human populations. Some of the diseases climate disruption will likely provoke, according to Basara: diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and respiratory diseases (to name a few).

That’s bad news in a state where such diseases are already prevalent.

“West Virginia is a key place for intervention,” Basara said, “whether that’s economically or in terms of disease management, access to care... the list is very long.”

Invasive Species

Yong-Lak Park, Assistant Professor Entomology in WVU's Davis College of Agriculture spoke about his research that looks at the complicated relationships between pollinators, mites, and blueberries. With charts he demonstrated how easily these species, which depend on each other, could be thrown out of sync.

He went on to say that West Virginians could also see their environment infected by invasive species. He pointed to the stinkbug as an example of a species that threatens agricultural crops in the state. 

Adapting to/Preparing for Forecasted Climate Disruption

Adaptation was a key topic during the discussion. It also provoked a lot of passion in the panelists. They discussed the role of scientists in political dialogues. McCusker said that until now, scientists have largely taken a back seat in political arenas, expecting scientific findings to speak for themselves. That was a mistake, he said, data do not speak for themselves. As a result of a relaxed posture, McCusker said, scientists now are having to spend an inordinate amount of time dispelling misinformation instead of tending to more pressing concerns like climate mitigation and adaptation.