Doctors Demand Climate Change Action to Avert "Global Health Catastrophe"

As Congress continues to grapple with health care reform this week, heads of state meet at a UN summit to face the challenge of climate change in preparation for a December conference in Copenhagen. Given the dire health consequences of global warming noted by the author, success at the UN could rein in health care costs in the long run, while taking a giant step toward a healthier world.

September 21, 2009

Physicians are sounding the alarm about the dangers that global warming poses to health. Last week, the prestigious journals The Lancet and British Medical Journalpublished an open letter in which doctors representing 18 international medical associations urged immediate action by policymakers to avoid a global public health catastrophe. Doctors are speaking out as they realize that their most vulnerable patients-the poor, the elderly, the very young, the already-infirm, and the women who traditionally are caregivers to all-will bear the biggest burden of climate change's negative impacts.

Science has shown that global warming will cause temperatures to climb even higher, rainfall and droughts to become more extreme, and sea levels to rise. With increasing frequency and intensity, we can expect consequences that directly affect human health: heat waves that kill; worsening air pollution and allergen levels; changing patterns of infectious disease; degradation of food and water supplies; and catastrophic weather events. Growing populations of refugees-pushed from their homes by environmental catastrophe and wars over resources-will face dire threats to their health and well-being.

Global warming has been called a "threat multiplier" because it will exacerbate energy, security, and health problems that already plague society. Never before have we had the means to look 100 years into the future. But now, thanks to climate modelers, we have that chance. Even with a level of uncertainty about precisely what the future will hold, the consensus of the modelers is unmistakable: a hotter world with an altered water cycle, changed ecosystems, diminished food security and water supplies, and the health of people on every continent threatened.

A special report published in May by The Lancet called climate change "the biggest global health threat of the 21st century." Global warming's impacts are felt today in places like India, Africa, the Arctic and small island nations. On Tuesday, September 22, the heads of state preparing for the UN climate change negotiations in Copenhagen later this year have an enormous responsibility. According to the doctors signing the Lancet/BMJ letter, "A successful outcome at Copenhagen is vital for our future as a species and for our civilization."

But people are also vulnerable right here in the United States, according to experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In an article that I wrote with colleagues at Columbia University and elsewhere, we projected that heat-related deaths in New York could nearly double by 2050. We are not immune to the health risks of climate change. Our already-stressed health care system, especially emergency rooms according to a recently published study, will be challenged to cope with the additional demands that global warming will place on patients and practitioners. As the doctors writing last week in The Lancet said, "while the poorest in the world will be the first affected, none will be spared."

The U.S. Senate has in its hands right now climate legislation passed by the House of Representatives in June. This legislation, the American Clean Energy and Security Act (or "ACES") would establish reductions on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and ensure that they decline even further in years to come. The United States is still among the leading per-capita emitters of global warming pollution, but passage of this bill will help reverse that and establish America as an international leader on climate change in Copenhagen.

Doctors abide by the principle: "First, do no harm." They are schooled to advocate above all for the health of the patients in their care. At this point in time, doing nothing on climate change may be tantamount to doing harm.

And maybe this is why now doctors are leading the charge.

We can join these doctors and demand that our policymakers create binding, mandatory emissions reductions that will decline over the years to come, aiming us toward a cleaner, greener energy future. The great news is that there are enormous opportunities in doing this: we can reduce air and water pollution as we burn less fossil fuels, build stronger communities that rely more on public transportation, offer more opportunities for healthy exercise with less reliance on cars, more access to healthy local food, and improve human health right now.

We can join with these wise physicians and become advocates for the health of those most vulnerable in society-and for our own health-by reducing global warming pollution. If we do, we can move toward a more secure future for the global community that will be our children's inheritance.

Our leaders cannot afford to be indecisive now, and we need to tell them so.

by Kim Knowlton for The Women's Media Center (