Bridger Fire

A row of mailboxes along Tepee Ridge Road stand out against a wall of thick smoke from the Bridger Foothills fire on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020.

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Authors behind a statewide report about climate change’s impacts on public health predicted Tuesday that increasing heat, worsening air quality and extreme weather events will put vulnerable Montanans at risk in the coming decades.

The report, titled “Climate Change and Human Health in Montana: A Special Report of the Montana Climate Assessment,” predicts diminishing air quality, extreme weather and rising heat will adversely impact people with chronic physical and mental health conditions, the very young, the very old, people living in poverty and people with limited access to health care.

Authors wrote that as the climate warms, Montanans can expect heat waves, more intense precipitation events, droughts, longer growing seasons, floods and reduced air quality from wildfire smoke.

Those factors will exacerbate heat-related illnesses, vector-borne diseases and mental health, respiratory, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal conditions, the authors wrote. Decreased food security, water contamination and worsening allergies and asthma could also arise.

“We know that it’s going to get 4 to 6 degrees warmer by mid-century, and in all probability, as much as 10 degrees warmer by the end of the century,” said Cathy Whitlock, a co-author and a regents professor in earth sciences and fellow of the Montana Institute on Ecosystems at Montana State University.

By the end of the century, the state could see a month of extremely warm days (days over 90 degrees) annually. People doing agricultural work outdoors would become more susceptible to heat stroke and other heat-related illnesses, Whitlock said.

“Climate change is often thought of as a threat multiplier,” said Robert Byron, a co-author of the report and an internist with Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate.

“In many cases it makes things that already exist much worse.”

The report builds on the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment, which was produced by the Institute on Ecosystems, Montana State University’s Center for American Indian and Rural Health Equity (CAIRHE) and Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Environment. That document focused on the impacts of climate change on agriculture, forests and water.

The new report focused on the health consequences associated with a warming climate. Alexandra Adams, director of CAIRHE and lead author, said contributors wanted it to be tangible and digestible for all Montanans.

Government agencies, scientists and practitioners from around Montana need to come together to address the issues discussed in the report, Adams said.

“As different communities around Montana, there are lots of different things happening in different places… We really need an adequately funded and coordinated statewide public health network,” she said.

Data around health and climate also needs to be bolstered, according to the report.

Mari Eggers, a co-author and a member of the Gallatin City-County Board of Health, said agencies that assess municipal credit ratings are starting to check how prepared cities are for climate-related emergencies like wildfires and floods.

Municipalities without plans for such emergencies could have their credit ratings affected, which could negatively impact local economies, she said.

“To be able to do this kind of planning, we absolutely need health data and climate data at least on a county level, which is not widely available for Montana at this point,” Eggers said.

Byron said climate change is a problem for everyone, and while political and cultural differences may make it difficult to address the issue, people can’t say “it’s not my job.”

“One thing about climate change is it does not recognize any borders whatsoever, and it is an equal opportunity disaster,” Byron said. “... It’s up to all of us to start the conversations.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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