This week is National Public Health Week. One of the events commemorating the occasion was a roundtable discussion on Tuesday at Howard University's College of Medicine, where President Barack Obama joined U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to discuss the link between climate change and public health.
This linkage was not widely known, but presidential adviser Brian Deese cited a study by the American Thoracic Society which revealed that 65 percent of doctors surveyed felt that climate change was already relevant to patient care, with even more saying it would be in the future. Among the connections listed were: chronic disease severity due to air pollution, allergies from plants and mold, and severe weather injuries.
This pairing is a difficult sell here in the U.S., in part because a number of the most severe health impacts hit other areas disproportionately. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that climate change will cause 250,000 additional deaths annually between 2030 and 2050. "Most will likely perish from malaria, diarrhea, heat exposure and under-nutrition," the organization said. These are not things we see a lot of here in the U.S. But rising temperatures and increased flooding might bring increased exposure to tropical diseases like malaria to northern climates while also accelerating the life cycle of the disease.
A 2013 Time magazine article makes the case that medical professionals may be the best messengers for global warming.
"Framing global warming as a public health issue rather than as an environmental or national security one produces the most emotionally compelling response among people, since it focuses on the immediate implications a warmer climate would have on people's lives," Time contributor Courtney Subramanian wrote in the article. "This strategy also has the benefit of providing a sense of hope that the problems can be addressed and avoided, if action is taken early enough."
Air pollution is the largest environmental threat to public health. In 2012, it was responsible for one in eight deaths worldwide, according to Dr. Maria Neira, director of the WHO's public health and environment department. And while climate change is responsible for certain types of air pollution, such as that associated with increased wildfires, a much broader correlation exists between the sources of air pollution and the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change because these emissions are a root cause of both. These are parallel outcomes: Taking action against climate change by reducing smokestack emissions from power plants and tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks will also help reduce air pollution.
This is an important point, because while it might be confusing to say that climate change causes air pollution, it is fair, and perhaps more clear, to say that the many of the things that cause climate change also cause air pollution.
The next greatest public health threat is under-nutrition. In 2012, it was the cause of death for over 3 million people. Climate change is playing a more direct causal role here, as rising temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns have wreaked havoc on agricultural productivity. Not long ago this was something that only happened to people far away, but this reality has now come home to roost in California’s Central Valley.
As the impacts of climate change loom closer, we can begin to see some of its less obvious features more clearly. This is a good thing, since it will tend to widen the circle of those that take an interest in the subject, some of whom will also take action.
Image credit: Trinity Care Foundation: Flickr Creative Commons
RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org