(Photo: Physicians for Social Responsibility)

Meet the New Climate Change Warrior: Your Doctor

The powerful medical establishment calls on physicians to fight global warming as a new study details its consequences on health.
Sep 29, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Melanie Haiken is a San Francisco Bay Area–based health, science, and travel writer who contributes regularly to Forbes.com and numerous national magazines.

Doctors aren’t just worried about heart disease, diabetes, and obesity these days. Climate change is climbing to the top of their list of public health hazards, and that could have big implications in the political fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Among the more than 310,000 demonstrators marching through Manhattan in last week’s People’s Climate March were contingents of physicians. Now The Journal of the American Medical Association, the voice of the nation’s powerful medical establishment, has issued a call to arms to doctors, urging those in health-related fields to throw their weight behind climate change prevention efforts.

“Is climate change similar to poverty and war, best left to other scientists and politicians, or is it of such fundamental importance—like clean water, clean air, and adequate sanitation—that physicians should strive to further clarify the effects of climate change on health, educate themselves and the public, and mount a campaign to ensure that climate change does not lead to an epidemic of eroding health?” wrote JAMA Editor in Chief Howard Bauchner and Executive Editor Phil Fontanarosa.

Yes, they concluded.

“Understanding and characterizing this threat and educating the medical community, public, and policy makers are crucial if the health of the world’s population is to continue to improve during the latter half of the 21st century,” according to Bauchner and Fontanarosa.

The editorial accompanied a new JAMA study that found that climate change is already making us sick and will make us even sicker as global warming accelerates.

The study, coauthored by Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Sir Andy Haines, professor of public health and primary care at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, presented a compelling case that rising temperatures and extreme weather events pose a long list of serious health risks.

What the research shows:

  • By the year 2050, not only will average daily temperatures rise in many American cities, but there will also be many more days of extreme heat each year, leading to a spike in heat-related illnesses.
  • More smoggy days will make us increasingly susceptible to asthma, allergies, and lung disease.
  • Longer periods of heat will bring more infectious diseases, such as mosquito- and tick-borne viruses.
  • A hotter climate will reduce agricultural yields and boost the prevalence of pests and plant diseases. The likely result will be food shortages, including less availability of healthy veggies, fruit, and grains.
  • The extreme droughts predicted for much of the southwestern United States create dust clouds, which add to particulates in the air.
  • Smoke from the wildfires already rampant in the West is toxic to the lungs.
  • Heavy rainfall and flooding can overtax sewage systems, allowing disease-causing bacteria to contaminate drinking water.
  • The stress of living through extreme heat tends to increase rates of depression and anxiety. Studies show that people who live through tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and other natural disasters have a higher incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Patz and Haines presented their findings to many of the leading figures in public health at the Action in Climate Change and Health event on the eve of last week's United Nations Climate Summit.

Hosted by the Public Health Institute’s Center for Climate Change and Health, the event featured among its speakers U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Boris Lushniak, acting U.S. Surgeon General; Gina McCarthy, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and Maria Neira, director of the World Health Organization’s Public Health and the Environment Department.

Then there was the WHO’s first-ever international conference on climate change and health, attended by representatives from 90 countries. They presented evidence of how climate change and its effects, including extreme flooding, are already affecting the health of their people.

“The health consequences of climate change and the health cobenefits of addressing it have finally entered the mainstream at the highest levels of government and the health profession,” said Gary Cohen, executive director of Health Care Without Harm, an international nonprofit focused on medical environmental issues.

Cohen points out that when the Obama administration announced the EPA’s landmark carbon pollution rules in June, they were presented largely in the context of protecting the health of Americans.

“There’s broad recognition that the best way to engage average people on climate change is to talk about its impact on their health and the health of their families and community,” he said.

There’s a positive health message in all of this, said Jennifer Miller of the Public Health Institute, an Oakland, Calif.–based nonprofit. “Some of the key strategies for addressing climate change—walkable cities, clean energy, healthier diets, and sustainable agriculture—also address some of the major health issues we’ve been grappling with for years, such as obesity, heart disease, and asthma.”

The impact of JAMA jumping into the climate change fray remains to be seen. But consider physicians’ role in defeating the once powerful tobacco industry: Doctors went from appearing in magazine ads that promoted smoking to taking a leading role in banning cigarette advertising and, ultimately, smoking from public life.