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PHI in the News

How climate change is threatening our health

June 25, 2015 | Linda Rudolph and Tracy Delaney | San Diego Union-Tribune

In several recent surveys of physicians in the United States, close to 70 percent report that they are seeing the effects of climate change in their patients, here and now.

As health professionals, we have a responsibility to point out that climate change is not just a climate issue – it’s an urgent health issue.

It’s no coincidence that the White House picked the hashtag #ActOnClimate for its new climate change push: It’s not just time to act; it’s overdue.

Last year, the World Health Organization estimated that at the rate we are going, 250,000 people will die each year from 2030 to 2050 as a result of climate change effects.

Climate change has direct health effects due to heat waves and extreme weather events, but it is also increasing respiratory and cardiovascular disease, spreading mosquito-borne diseases, and threatening our access to clean and safe water, food, shelter and security. These effects disproportionately impact the health of low-income communities, communities of color and those vulnerable due to age or pre-existing illness.

It’s easy to become paralyzed in the face of what the prestigious Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, which released a special report on Monday, has called “the biggest health threat of this century.” But what is our biggest threat is also our biggest opportunity.

We must both rapidly reduce climate pollution and help our communities become prepared and resilient in the face of climate change. There are many “win/win” cost-effective climate solutions available to us now that will also result in unprecedented, concrete and rapid improvements to our health.

Currently, toxic air emissions from burning coal and oil in the U.S. cause 13,200 deaths, 9,700 hospitalizations and over 20,000 heart attacks a year. We need a rapid transition to a clean energy economy through financial incentives and ambitious targets for energy efficiency and renewable energy. This will result in cleaner air, big reductions in respiratory and cardiovascular disease, reduced carbon pollution and decreased health care costs. The EPA’s proposal last Friday to cut emissions from medium- and heavy-duty trucks that crisscross the country, for instance, could save as much as $242 billion in health and other benefits.

Shifting from automobile use to walking, biking and public transit will not only reduce carbon and air pollution, but the accompanying physical activity will also yield huge reductions in cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and some cancers – not to mention improvements in mental health and well being. We need swift and robust investments in infrastructure to make active transportation in our communities easy, affordable and safe.

To ensure that our cities are prepared for more frequent and severe heat events, especially in low-income areas surrounded by concrete and asphalt, we need to create more green spaces, such as parks and trees. These spaces cool down city temperatures in “urban heat islands,” and they also improve mental health, reduce air pollution and stormwater runoff, and improve the capture of precious rainwater in our groundwater aquifers.

These are a few examples of climate actions we can take now that also protect health – but of course, we also need more robust and urgent management of our ground water, to protect us against the effects of a continued drought. And every community needs to assess how climate change will impact its residents and begin to launch these climate actions now to promote climate resilience and gain the greatest health benefits.

Climate actions like these will not only prevent thousands of deaths, they will also boost the U.S. economy by billions of dollars, according to a new peer-reviewed EPA study. (You can read the study at www2.epa.gov/cira.)

One need only look at the impacts of the drought on California’s agricultural communities, or those displaced by hurricanes and floods, to understand that for many, climate change is literally an existential threat.

Pope Francis’ historic encyclical last week on the environment and climate stated in the strongest terms that climate change is a global problem with grave implications for all of us, but particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable.

To protect our health, climate action is a necessity. As Pope Francis implored, we have an “urgent challenge to protect our common home.” Let’s face this challenge together now, and take strong actions for climate change and health.

 

Rudolph, M.D., MPH, is director of the Public Health Institute’s Center for Climate Change and Health. Delaney, Ph.D., is executive director of the Public Health Alliance of Southern California.