Climate Change Is Fueling a Public Health Crisis. Doctors Need to Address This

Climate Change Is Fueling a Public Health Crisis. Doctors Need to Address This

At the most recent conference in my professional organization, my colleague Amanda Dilger encouraged fellow clinicians to offset the carbon costs of their travel. In addition, we spoke to a small group of surgeons about climate change. Amanda and I are both otolaryngologists. However, we are also climate activists.

Before I started the panel, I was uncertain how my fellow surgeons would react to it, since climate change was rarely discussed at these meetings. My colleagues, who came up to the microphone after our talk, asked me the questions that showed they understood the environmental health issue and the need to make hospitals more sustainable. The question of how to offset the carbon cost of their travel was more complex. While there are limitations that can be used as a climate mitigation action ,, the responses were varied. As they walked away, most people gave us a smile and thumbs-up. We took that as passive support of climate action. Some gave encouraging verbal responses, such as “we need more of that,” while others simply said “no” and quickly fled.

While climate change is a serious threat to public health, the standard response from the health care community to this issue is fairly consistent. There is a small, but dedicated, group of us who are keenly aware of the importance of environmental health, a group that understands that children, in part because of their smaller anatomy, are extremely vulnerable to the health risks of climate change and air pollution. There is a larger group of health professionals that are able to ignore the importance of climate change in their practice.

World leaders gathered in Egypt last week for COP27 to address ways to reduce climate change, and while some aspects of climate change as a health issue were addressed, much more needs to be done. Climate change is fueling a public health crisis, from worsening heat extremes to intensified weather events, and the people impacted–with heat stroke, breathing complications, mental health disorders–are showing up in emergency departments and exam rooms.

It’s time for doctors and policy makers alike to recognize the impact of climate change on people’s health. My colleagues and me are currently working at George Washington University to address this issue. In the most recent Lancet Countdown, an annual report on health and climate, researchers describe how health is at the mercy of fossil fuels. We saw this over the summer, when levels of carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping pollutant, hit a record high at the same time that schools were sending children home in response to extreme heat, which over recent decades has been the deadliest weather-related disaster in the U.S.

Climate Change is the story of a young generation. The past seven years on Earth have been the hottest seven years on record. Too many children grow up in a world that is plagued by extreme weather and air pollution. However, doctors don’t code it that way.

For example, my colleague treated a six-year-old boy in the ER who had trouble breathing when higher levels of ground level ozone exacerbated his asthma attacks. This is simply coded as having an asthma attack, J45.901. Where does ground level ozone fit in? Another example from another colleague is a teenager in a new city who was experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after being displaced from her home as a result of an “above-normal” Atlantic hurricane; that teen was diagnosed as having PTSD. Climate-related weather extremes: Where does this fit in? Climate change and air pollution are both driving many chronic and acute illnesses. This is often not recorded or considered in our treatment plans.

Climate change is not a novel virus that is taking the science community by surprise, although a warming planet means viruses, such as the Aedes-transmitted arbovirusthat transmits dengue, are surviving in places they never could before. We have the power and knowledge to move away from an economy dependent on fossil fuel combustion. Many of the negative effects of global warming on our environment and health can be avoided by legislative changes to lower heat-trapping polluting pollutants. Climate action is possible, and all health care providers can and should advocate for it.

We do this at the Climate and Health Institute at GWU, where we work via a cross-disciplinary approach with members from schools such as business, law and international affairs to mitigate climate change by advocating for climate legislation and mobilizing sustainability initiatives on campus and in the community. Our shared goal to advance equitable climate solutions through education and policy-relevant advocacy is best achieved when we work together.

There are many opportunities to take meaningful action. The Inflation Reduction Act is the largest U.S. climate bill to date. It puts us back on path to reduce harmful emissions by 40 percent by 2030, which brings the United States significantly closer to the goal of cutting emissions measured in 2005 in half by 2030. We now need to build upon this framework with equitable legislation that both achieves this goal and addresses the needs of frontline communities who have suffered the most environmental harm from a legacy of pollution and racism domestically and globally. We can make sure that midterm elections are marked by equitable climate legislation.

In addition, leaders in health care need to look at emissions from the health care sector and consider what harms are being done to the communities they are entrusted to heal. The health care industry contributes upwards of 10 percent of heat-trapping pollutants in the United States. Health sector decarbonization is a substantial area of climate action that can cut back on harmful pollutants. Just switching the type of anesthetic gas we use for procedures can have major implications on health care pollution.

Climate change is taking place right now. I chose to speak about planetary health with a small group of surgeons at the annual conference, knowing that there are more solutions than one person can provide to reduce emissions. If our goals in medicine are to improve health and wellbeing and reduce suffering, then we must work together to address climate change.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


    Neelu Tummala is an ENT surgeon and clinical assistant professor of surgery at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, is a co-director of the Climate Health Institute at George Washington University and is on the board of the Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action. Follow Neelu Tummala on Twitter

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