On January 9, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) abruptly canceled a long-planned Summit on Climate Change and Health scheduled for mid-February. No explanation was given for the unusual move, the CDC saying only that “unfortunately, we are unable to hold the Summit,” and that the agency is “currently exploring” whether they can reschedule it for later in the year. If you’re like me, a health professional concerned about the impact on human health of a de-stabilized climate, this was chilling news.
A change in leadership in the White House often leads to altered priorities and new leadership at the top of federal agencies, so it was not surprising that the CDC’s current Director, Dr. Thomas Frieden, tendered his resignation on January 2. However, the mission of the CDC remains constant, and reads in part, to provide “health information that protects our nation against expensive and dangerous health threats, and responds when these arise.” The scientific community has long since concluded that climate change directly threatens human health, and therefor the CDC is expected to provide leadership. Canceling the conference not only impedes the sharing of vital information, it sends the unfortunate message that addressing this problem is no longer a priority of our federal government.
The past decade has seen both a confluence of high-level opinion about the health risks of climate change and mounting evidence of those impacts. In 2015, the co-Chair of the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change labeled this issue a “medical emergency,” that, left unchecked, “threatens to undermine the last half-century’s gains in development and global health.” Many respected journals and medical organizations have made equally emphatic statements.
Across the country, extreme weather events have caused widespread injury and deaths, severe flooding has added viral and bacterial disease outbreaks, and larger, more frequent fires have aggravated cardio-respiratory disease via airborne carbon monoxide and fine particulates. Hot weather kills more people in the U.S. than all other extreme weather events combined; just a ten-degree warmer-than-average day causes spikes in hospital admissions and deaths.
As an Obstetrician, I am deeply concerned about the spread of Zika virus across the entire southern one-third of the country due to our new, more-tropical climate. Other obscure infections will likely follow. Severe drought encourages West Nile Virus and Coccidiomycosis and reduces the availability of fresh vegetables and water, both vital to maintaining health. Finally, all of these weather trends show no sign of stabilizing, and will probably get much worse in the years to come.
At a time when we need credible science, collaboration, and effective government more than ever, it is distressing to see politics prioritized over people’s health. Children under the age of 5, per the World Health Organization in 2015, will suffer more than 85% of the disease burden of climate change. In addition to being among the most vulnerable, young children bear no responsibility for our collective inaction on this preventable tragedy.
As providers of health care and stewards of human life, what can we do? We certainly see firsthand the harm that comes when patients put off taking action on dangerous illnesses like diabetes or heart disease. We’re also familiar with the high cost to society of delayed care. The Journal of the American Medical Association recently called us out, saying, “health professionals have an important role in understanding and relating the potential health concerns and co-benefits from policies to reduce GHG emissions.”
We can do the following:
- Donate money and/or time to organizations that are actively addressing the climate crisis. We are in this for the long haul, and your ongoing support and engagement is critical.
- Join local environmental boards and committees and attend government meetings – City Councils, County Board of Supervisors, etc – and advocate for strong, science-based Community Plan Updates and Climate Action Plans.
- Empower ourselves as health messengers: join Los Angeles PSR’s Health Ambassador Program (https://www.psr-la.org/health-ambassadors). Learn how to become an effective advocate for health/climate policy with legislators, thought leaders and the media.
A problem like climate change can seem overwhelming, but as health professionals, our voices are valued and we can make a real difference. Many thousands of others are already on the front lines of this fight, and you will be welcomed. Lastly, after more than 10 years of activism, I can tell you that being involved will bring joy and renewed purpose to your practice and your life.