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Op-Ed: Treating Climate Change in Los Angeles

DTLA from Griffith Park

WRITTEN BY: DR. DEVKI PATEL, PSR-LA HEALTH AMBASSADOR

In 2009, The Lancet Commission stated that “climate change is the greatest global health threat of the 21st century.” On June 23, 2015, this international group of health, climate, and economic experts released a new report in the medical journal, The Lancet, confirming the adverse consequences that climate change will have on our lives, many of which we are already experiencing. The release of Lancet’s 2015 report underscores an important moment for health professionals like myself. Knowing how air pollution and rising temperatures adversely affect patients and communities on a clinical level, I feel a responsibility to speak out in support of the strong climate policies needed to protect human health. Climate change is a public health emergency – it’s time that we start treating it like one.

On a local level, Los Angeles and its surrounding areas already face increased health challenges as a result of rising temperatures and air pollution. As a physician specialized in pathology, I see firsthand how air pollution affects patients, their lungs, and their overall wellbeing. Ground-level ozone – a byproduct of air pollution and heat – is linked to asthma, cardiovascular disease, and low birth weight in newborns. In Los Angeles County, approximately 1,221,000 children and adults have been diagnosed with asthma, a condition that not only causes respiratory distress, but also is accompanied by costly medications, emergency room visits, and physical limitations on high ozone and heat days, both of which will be further exacerbated by climate change. In fact, Los Angeles was ranked the most polluted city in the U.S. in terms of ozone in this year’s State of the Air Report by the American Lung Association. Furthermore, The International Agency for Research on Cancer has determined air pollution, especially particulate matter, to be carcinogenic with an increased risk of lung cancer. After personally seeing deaths caused by asthma and lung cancer, I must speak out for the need to improve air quality.

In Los Angeles, pre-existing air quality issues – which stem from the use of fossil fuels – will be worsened by rising temperatures, leading to hazardous fire seasons, ongoing drought, and dangerous high heat days. This will especially be harmful for our agriculture and construction workers and our vulnerable populations – children and the elderly.For physicians, the connections between air pollution, climate change, and human health are clear.

Low-income communities and communities of color whose homes are often concentrated in areas of the city with a disproportionate burden of air pollution are also at increased risk of health disparities.

Though we are faced with global health threats, such as deadly heatwaves, infectious disease outbreaks, and food insecurity as a result of climate change, we are fortunate in that the solutions are clearly defined and available now. In order to successfully stabilize our climate and protect health, we need rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and a transition away from our fossil-fuel dependent economy. We need to stop the cause of climate change at its source: carbon-based air pollution. Clean energy sources such as solar and wind technologies have become more affordable and readily available over the last decade. Making direct reductions to greenhouse gas emissions by replacing coal and diesel with renewable energy will not only help cool the planet, but will also offer immediate health benefits to Californians. Coal-based electricity contributes to worker illness and injury, respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and mercury exposure that is harmful to brain development. Fossil fuel reductions will decrease the healthcare and economic costs associated with air pollution from coal plants, which in the U.S. is estimated to be $100 billion a year.

Climate change is not a problem for the future – it’s a problem that we are facing and experiencing right now. The solutions are no longer limited by technology or costs but by the lack of unified policy reform and international agreements. For physicians, the connections between air pollution, climate change, and human health are clear. With the unique understanding that my medical education and clinical experience have given me, I feel a moral responsibility to stand in favor of local, state, and federal climate action policies which will save lives and bring vital improvements to public health. In California we have an opportunity in Senate Bill 350 to reduce our use of fossil fuels in vehicles by 50%, increase energy efficiency in buildings by 50%, and increase our production of renewable energy to 50% by 2030. The release of The Lancet report reminds us that climate change is not a political issue but a public health issue, and through urgent action, we will ensure the prosperity of our children and loved ones.