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Regional climate report shows increased public concern about climate change

The report is jointly produced by Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington Counties and seeks to measure the local impact of climate change

PORTLAND, Ore. — Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas Counties released an updated version of their Regional Climate and Health Monitoring Report this week, which examines the indirect health impacts of climate change in the tri-county area through metrics such as air quality, extreme weather events and disease rates.

The new edition is broadly similar to the original report, released in 2018, but adds new data for the years 2018, 2019 and 2020 for some of the metrics. The year 2020 received particular attention in the updated report due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the intense wildfire smoke event in September.

Data from 2020 broke with some of the patterns and trends observed in prior years, a difference which the report’s authors speculated could be due to people behaving differently during the pandemic, although they said the report didn’t directly calculate those impacts.

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Lyme disease rates, for example, ranged from 11 to 34 cases per year in the tri-county area from 2010 to 2019, but fell to just six in 2020. Cases of salmonella and campylobacteriosis, a common foodborne illness, also hit their lowest levels in a decade last year.

The closure of restaurants could have affected the frequency of foodborne illness incidents, the authors noted, and people might have been afraid of contracting the virus at crowded medical facilities and therefore avoided seeking treatment for unrelated conditions. Restaurant closures and event cancellations could have also decreased public exposure to high heat and pollen.

The wildfire smoke event caused another significant departure from past data, according to the report. The overall rate of patients who went to the emergency room for asthma-like symptoms was lower in 2020 than in the two prior years, but visits spiked during the smoke event.

Asthma-related visits in the tri-county area rose from an average of 154 visits per day for the four weeks leading up to the event to an average of 240 visits per day from Sept. 10 to Sept. 17, when air quality levels were categorized as unhealthy.

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The report does not include data from 2021, but the authors noted that the June heat dome event led to an enormous spike in deaths. 

“During the heat event, many of the people who died were older and lacked adequate air conditioning,” Washington County Senior Program Coordinator Kathleen Johnson, who contributed to the report, said in a statement. “Extreme climate events worsen existing economic and health inequities and disproportionately affect low-income, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other communities of color as well as older people, children, people with underlying health conditions and people with disabilities.”

The tri-county area had experienced at least 81 heat-related deaths as of July this year, according to the report, compared with an annual average of one heat-related death per year during the prior decade.

“The ED visits from the September 2020 wildfires and fatalities from the June 2021 heat dome foreshadow how the region will experience future climate events, and provide stark contrast to trends documented in this report over the past 5-10 years,” the authors wrote.

Public concerns

The 2021 edition of the report adds a section at the end focusing on the public’s perception of climate change in the tri-county area, citing a Yale Climate Opinion Survey.

The estimated percentage of people who are somewhat or very worried about climate change rose steadily in all three counties from 2014 to 2020, according to the report, reaching 59.6% in Clackamas County, 75.6% in Multnomah County and 69.7% in Washington County last year.

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The estimated percentage of people who believe climate change will cause a moderate or great amount of personal harm also trended steadily upward across all three counties from 2014 to 2020, and reached more than 50 percent in Multnomah County in 2020.

Back in 2014, the number of people who thought climate change would cause little or no personal harm exceeded the number of people who thought it would cause moderate or great personal harm, in all three counties. By 2020, that ratio had flipped in Washington and Multnomah Counites.