Click here to go to the Colorado Health Institute website to read their report:
Studies show that climate change and health are linked. Rising temperatures, polluted air and extreme weather, among the most impactful results of climate change, threaten both physical and psychological well-being.10 Children, seniors and people with lung or heart disease are especially at risk.
Coloradans are witnessing climate changes in various forms.
Snowpack is melting sooner and more quickly.11 Erratic weather — snow one day, spring conditions the next — is becoming more common. Wildfires are burning more acreage and igniting with greater frequency. The state’s average temperature has risen by two degrees Fahrenheit in the past 30 years,12 an increase that ranks Colorado as the 20th fastest-warming state since 1970.13
Two degrees may seem like a small increase but this temperature change has happened unusually fast. Historically, such temperature changes took place over thousands of years.14
A great deal of work is being done at the intersection of climate change and health. The American Public Health Association has designated 2017 the year of climate change and health, calling climate change the nation’s greatest public health challenge.15 The United Nations Environment Program says that climate change is one of the biggest threats to worldwide environmental and human health.16
At the state level, Colorado’s voters passed a law in 2004 creating first-in-the-nation renewable energy standards for electricity producers, which has placed Colorado among the leaders in renewable energy.
The state’s 2007 Climate Plan, created by former Gov. Bill Ritter and updated in 2015 by Gov. John Hickenlooper, calls for regulating greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), conserving water and encouraging community-level action. Colorado is one of 33 states and the District of Columbia with a climate change plan.
Four Colorado cities — Aspen, Boulder, Denver and Fort Collins — have adopted local climate action plans.
This brief delves into the health impacts of three climate-change factors relevant to Colorado: rising temperatures, worsening air quality and extreme weather. It identifies Coloradans who will be most impacted by climate change and looks at the policy actions underway and the policy questions on the horizon.
Making the Connection: Climate Change and Health in Colorado
Colorado, as a landlocked state with complex landscapes ranging from mountains to plains, experiences climate-related events differently than other states. Extreme weather events such as blizzards and droughts are more common in Colorado, while hurricanes and flooding impact coastal states such Louisiana and Florida.
The consequences of climate change tend to be interconnected. Rising temperatures are likely to impact Colorado’s most valuable natural resource — water. Snow accounts for 70 percent of the state’s surface water supply.17, 18 As snow melt drains from the mountains earlier in the spring due to higher temperatures, less water is available later in the year to feed forests and meet agricultural and human needs.
Meanwhile, as Colorado’s climate warms, forests dry out. Thirsty forests, in turn, are ripe for wildfires.
Smoke and dust from fires pollute the air. And dirty air is a health hazard, particularly for people with breathing difficulties.
The following sections delve into the three climate change results that are expected to most affect the health of Coloradans, according to a synthesis of the research.
Heat is one of the biggest climate-related public health threats, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).19
Colorado’s average temperature has varied over the past century. Scientists have established a baseline temperature based on a 30-year average. (See Figure 1.) They plotted the annual average temperature relative to that average from 1900 to 2012. The blue bars represent years when the average temperature was below the 30-year baseline. Red bars mark years when the average temperature rose above the baseline.
Colorado’s temperature spiked during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and again in the 1950s. Temperatures began to be consistently higher than the average beginning in the mid-1990s.
Colorado’s average temperature has increased by two degrees Fahrenheit in the past 30 years. Looking ahead, climate models indicate a warmer future for Colorado. Projections say the state’s average temperature could be five degrees higher by 2050.20, 21 Such increases significantly outpace historical trends.
Currently, average summer temperatures in the Denver metro area are in the low- to mid-80s, but Denver has recorded several summers with 12 or more consecutive days above 90 degrees since 2008.22 Unusually hot temperatures — days above 90 degrees — can potentially harm health.23
It’s possible that 90-plus degrees could become Colorado’s average summer temperature by mid-century, according to the Western Water Assessment Team at CU-Boulder.24
To put that in perspective, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a scientific agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce that studies climate, says that as time goes on Denver will begin to feel more like Pueblo in the summer, where average highs are in the low 90s.25, 26
- Extreme heat affects cardiovascular, respiratory and nervous systems. (See Figure 2.)
Warmer temperatures also can cause heat stroke and dehydration.
- Almost six percent of Colorado’s adults have cardiovascular disease, putting them at an increased risk for heat exhaustion and heat stroke. A weakened heart has a harder time pumping blood throughout the body to normalize temperatures.
- The seven percent of Colorado’s adults with diabetes can have trouble cooling their bodies on hot days, a result of damage to blood vessels and nerves that impact sweat glands. Higher temperatures can also change how a person with diabetes uses insulin, requiring more frequent blood sugar tests and careful dietary choices.
- The state’s 1.2 million children are especially vulnerable. Children absorb more heat than adults because they have a greater ratio of skin surface to weight.
- The 711,000 seniors over age 65 are at increased risk because chronic illness and age can hinder the ability to regulate body temperature.