Climate Changes Health: A Big Week Ahead in Chicago

Climate Change Ribbon
APHA 2015

I will be attending the American Public Health Association's (APHA) annual meeting this week in Chicago. My main topic for discussion: climate change. Climate change is "one of the most serious public health threats facing our nation," according to Dr. Georges Benjamin, Executive Director of the APHA. I applaud APHA for making climate change one of their top advocacy priorities for 2015 -- and if you'll be attending the meeting, at registration you can pick up a #ClimateChangesHealth red ribbon to wear on your APHA conference badge.

Climate change affects the work of members across APHA. Children, the elderly, and communities struggling with poverty are among the most vulnerable to climate-related illness and disease, but climate change affects the health of all of us. And Dr Benjamin's not the only one saying it.

The scientific community rarely speaks as one on any single topic. Climate change bucks that trend. Medical groups, international academies of science, and scientific societies have all spoken out strongly for the need to protect people from the health impacts that climate change creates through increased heat, drought, water contamination, the spread of infectious disease, and the list goes on.

Earlier this year, in fact, the Lancet - one of the world's preeminent medical journals - published two groundbreaking reports: the first, a report by some of the world's leading medical experts that found action on climate change is a medical necessity. So perilous is climate change that the report's authors say it "threatens to undermine the last half century of gains in development and global health." Think about that for a minute: "the last half century of gains in development and global health."

This all sounds pretty grim, but luckily the Lancet report contains two pieces of news that have huge significance. Number one: "tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century." Number two: the financial savings resulting from the health improvements that will come from shifting rapidly away from fossil fuels will more than pay for the cost of that transition.

That's what we've found in our research too. Climate change not only costs far too many lives. It also costs far too much us money in both interrupted lives and increased health care. In a study published in the journal Health Affairs, a team of NRDC scientists, including myself, partnered with university economists to investigate the health costs of six climate change-related events. We found the estimated costs of just six climate-related events totaled more than $14 billion (in 2008 U.S. dollars). The study team selected six types of events that will worsen with climate change in ways likely to harm human health--ozone smog pollution, heat waves, hurricanes, mosquito-borne infectious disease, river flooding, and wildfires. The health effects and related costs of these events offer an indication of the threats we will increasingly face under a warming climate.

And our work in India is illustrative of how we can effectively respond to these costs. In 2010, a heat wave hit Ahmedabad, India, with temperatures that reached 117 degrees F; the heat was associated with over 1,300 excess deaths. With help from the NRDC, the city responded by creating the first heat wave early warning system in South Asia. Early findings suggest the system has been effective in reducing heat-related mortality. Other cities in the subcontinent are now pursuing similar efforts.

The Lancet is focused on solutions and action too. In the second report from July, Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene Epoch with the Rockefeller Foundation, they focused on the immediate actions we need to take as a global community. For the past few months they've been holding launch events for this report all over the world trying to ignite action from Rio de Janiero to Beijing.

And now world leaders are following the advice of medical and scientific experts. This September, world leaders from 193 countries recognized the multiple benefits of tackling climate change by adopting new sustainable development goals to end extreme poverty, fight inequality, and combat climate change. The new global goals are predicated on the fact that the world cannot develop sustainably without combatting climate change, and cannot protect the climate without sustainable development. It is the first time world leaders have acknowledged that we need to tackle the biggest challenges of our age - poverty, inequality, and climate change - together.


DCA.Org Animation

Those goals will be put to the test this December, when world leader convene in Paris to develop a global climate agreement. It is time for our world leaders to send an unmistakable signal that the global community is ready, willing and able to collectively accelerate the transition to a clean energy future and protect the health of millions, if not billions, of people in the process.

I'm excited to be part of the APHA conference this week and to join the mighty force of public health professionals committed to climate action who support this noble goal.