Climate change is real; it is happening now, and it is one of the gravest threats to the public’s health that we will face this century. Catherine Thomasson, MD, Executive Director of EarthShare member charity Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) answered our questions about the health impacts of climate change:
Why should health professionals care about climate change?
Climate change is impacting health! Heat waves and elevated levels of air pollution (ozone) are already harming our health and we expect a minimum temperature increase of 3-5◦C by 2100 or 5-10◦F with little change in our output. Four out of five Americans have been victims of an extreme weather event in the last ten years, losing homes and jobs. Tornadoes, thunderstorms, and droughts resulting in a loss of crops and price hikes on many food items last summer impacted the health of children whose parents can’t afford food. Water supplies are also at significant risk. Epidemics of dengue fever, the increasing range of Lyme disease and other insect borne diseases are occurring more due to milder winters and hotter summers.
What is PSR doing on this issue?
PSR brings the message of health threats due to climate change to our policymakers, to medical associations, and to the public. We advocate closing polluting coal-burning power plants. We study the health impacts of hydraulic fracturing and bring health professionals to our legislatures and governors calling for a ban until and if this practice can be done without fouling our air, our groundwater and releasing high levels of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas. We also call for solutions such as increasing energy efficiency to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and to develop healthy sources of electricity such as solar, wind and geothermal.
Our voice is heard in city councils and state legislatures through our 31 chapters and at the federal level at the EPA, Capitol Hill and the president’s office. There we also advocate for preparation or adaptation to the known impacts of climate change.
What specific health (or other) impacts from climate change have you seen in your own region? / What makes this issue personal to you?
I have friends who were stranded in hospitals during Hurricane Katrina and in New York City during Hurricane Sandy. It is horrifying to think about caring for and evacuating intensive care patients in the dark because the hospitals were not prepared for the intensity of the storms. These events are increasing in severity.
What do medical associations (AMA, ANA, etc.) say about climate change?
Both the American Medical Association and the American Nursing Association acknowledge the consensus of the scientific community on climate change caused by humankind primarily from burning fossil fuels. They call on all providers to speak to patients and educate their communities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to prepare for higher temperatures and sea level as well as extreme weather events.
Is human-caused climate change widely accepted by individuals in the medical community?
Unfortunately not! In a review article written by a PSR member, there were many letters received denouncing the journal for covering the issue.
What is your opinion of the “Human Health” section of the new National Climate Assessment, released in January 2013?
PSR will be making every effort to share this very concise and well-documented information with the public and health professionals in efforts to spur preparation and mitigation of future effects. In a fact-based document such as this, it is hard to convey or measure the health impacts of storms such as Sandy and Katrina which are overwhelming to families who lost everything or are trying to repair when foundations are waterlogged and overrun with mold.
Are hospitals and medical professionals preparing for climate change? How?
Some hospitals have joined an organization called Practice Greenhealth and have signed on to the climate challenge, which requires building improvements and educating on climate change. They are recycling, installing energy efficient features, improving their heating systems and installing solar panels. Some hospital systems are educating their staff and communities to prepare for extreme weather and take action to reduce the severity of climate change. Others, along with some cities or counties are doing nothing. It is these people we need to reach.
What can communities do to adapt to the health impacts of climate change?
PSR health professionals are educating and working with some cities and counties who recognize the need to prepare for the changes such as a 3 to 5 degree Fahrenheit increase, or a sea level rise of over two feet in the coming 50 years. Communities can bolster their public health system to add warning systems and preparations for heat waves and extreme weather, and evaluate the water shortages that will occur. Well-prepared cities and counties have climate change plans which take health into consideration.
What are the health benefits to addressing climate change?
The health or co-benefits of cutting fossil fuels are myriad. Burning fossil fuels causes a majority of our air and water pollution. The secondary benefits of reducing coal, oil, gasoline and natural gas use will provide cleaner air and water. Cutting red meat from our diets reduces methane production and will reduce heart disease and environmental degradation from beef production.
What gives you hope?
Communities that are addressing climate change and preparing for impacts are becoming more resilient to all kinds of threats. They are often increasing pride and cooperation across city and county government, business and social entities. Buildings that are more energy efficient are better places to work, with more natural sunlight, better insulation and show improved productivity and fewer sick days. I also am very hopeful that we have a president who is speaking out on the issue and I hope there will be more market incentives to make the changes we need!
To learn more about PSR's climate change program, follow their blog here. Be sure to read our article on the health impacts of climate change too.