I awoke one morning two weeks ago and found myself unable to breathe. My throat had closed tight, as though my trachea had been replaced by a cocktail straw. I had asthma as a child, but I hadn't experienced an attack in more than a decade, so I figured I had outgrown it. Judging by the wheezing that now wracked me, however, I had figured wrong. My asthma was back.
Probably, the doctor said later, my attack was an isolated incident. Maybe it had been brought on by the scuzz beneath my bed, or the dust in my closet. Had I changed soaps? Encountered a cat? Regardless, she assured me, my body would likely adjust to whatever agent had roused my dormant condition.
But I kept wheezing over the next week, in a near-perpetual state that became as perplexing as it was uncomfortable. I vacuumed my room and kept an eye out for felines, but the asthma persisted. I was baffled. What was causing my relapse?
Finally I stumbled upon a potential explanation in a Washington Post article headlined: "Weather pushes allergy and asthma miseries to new level." You can see why it got my attention. But really, the headline gets it wrong, because as the story makes clear, it's not just weather, but also climate that is affecting allergies and asthma this year.
Start with the third-warmest summer on record in the Lower 48, mix in studies showing a longer allergy season due to global warming, and then top it off with more potent pollen produced by our CO2-charged air -- yep, a super pollen -- and you've got a perfect recipe for wheezing.
Allergists tell the Post they’ve been witnessing a nationwide, worsening trend for several years now, and there are a number of scientific studies to back up their concerns. (Scientists at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which publishes OnEarth, released a report about this back in 2007: "Sneezing and Wheezing: How Global Warming Could Increase Ragweed Allergies, Air Pollution and Asthma.") Considering that the country is expected to get hotter and drier –– a lot hotter and drier –– in years to come, that trend isn’t likely to reverse itself any time soon.
I closed the Post article, took a hit from my inhaler, and pondered my new status as a climate change victim.
Most Americans don't rely on glaciers for our water, and even with historic droughts, we won't run out of food -- at least not any time soon. And our relative wealth cushions us from potential harm. Bangladeshis may not be able to escape rising sea levels (see "The Gathering Storm," Summer 2008), but when New York's waterfront is threatened by inundation, the city will likely be able to afford to construct dikes, rebuild wetlands, or relocate its disgruntled denizens to Scarsdale.
True, 2012 may be remembered as the year that climate change hit home for many Americans -- viadrought, crop failures, and massive wildfires. Here in Connecticut, where I live, though, those calamities still feel far away, so it's easy not to demand action or think we still have plenty of time to change things. But when my throat starts constricting, that shows how wrong I am. (I’m not saying that my attacks were definitively caused by climate change, a near-impossible link to prove, but even the prospect is scary -- and I'd imagine it’s even scarier when it’s your child who is pulling desperately at an inhaler.)
The receding ice, the spreading fires, and the disastrous droughts make headlines, and rightfully so. But when it's impossible to take a breath, it's a powerful reminder that even the things we can't see -- like the air we breath -- can hurt us as we continue to change the world in a way no one can fully predict or understand. Thinking about that definitely won't help me breathe any easier.
Image: The Mohers