New climate-health report in The Lancet: our opportunity moment is now

Action on climate change is a medical necessity. That's the word out in a new report published today by some of the world's leading medical experts in one of the world's preeminent medical journals, The Lancet. The report is now available online at:

Though many Americans don't realize it, climate change is already having profound effects on our health. But physicians tell us that climate change is affecting people's health, right here, right now, in the US. Longer, hotter heat waves, more treacherous floods, turbocharged hurricanes, expanding areas affected by drought --all of them are endangering our health and our lives right now. That's especially true for the most vulnerable--the elderly, the young, people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, low-income Americans for whom long-term ill health and access to healthcare are often daily concerns. Though some in positions of power choose to deny global warming or claim it will hurt only generations far down the road, around our country, in states like Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio and Illinois, doctors and other medical professionals are already reporting a host of ways climate change is affecting us now.

They see an increased incidence of insect-borne illnesses, including Lyme Disease and cases of the once-only-tropical Dengue fever, over a wider geographical range. As a nation, we reported more than 60,000 emergency room visits annually between 2006-2010, on average, for heat-related illnesses. Ragweed pollen season is already 2 to 3 weeks longer than it used to be across Midwestern states because of warming temperatures, which can spell an increased frequency and duration of seasonal allergies. Asthma and other respiratory diseases affect tens of millions of Americans and are difficult to treat.

If this all sounds pretty grim already, you might fret--but please, not before you consider that the new 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 sounds almost crazy, right? But it's true. Why? Because, as much as dirty energy companies try to ignore it, burning fossil fuels is terrible for our health. Consider, for a minute, vehicle exhaust. It contains at least four confirmed carcinogens including fine particles, benzene, formaldehyde, and butadiene, plus a fourth suspected carcinogen, acetaldehyde. The fine, sooty particles (also known as particulate matter) have also been linked to premature death, non-fatal heart attacks, aggravated asthma and decreased lung function. Other chemicals in exhaust combine to form ground-level ozone smog, which worsens asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and damages the lungs, along with other dangerous chemicals.


Coal, too, is hazardous to human health on every step from the mine to the coal ash dump. Coal, when burned in power plants, not only produces heat-trapping carbon pollution that causes climate change, but also releases fine particles, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides (which cause inflammation of the airways), particulate matter, dangerous mercury and other toxic chemicals. Coal ash and other by-products of coal incineration, like the stuff that spilled into North Carolina's Dan River only last year, are filled with heavy metals and toxic chemicals like arsenic. Coal and air pollution, of course, are not just problems in the U.S. but around the world. The World Health Organization estimates that 7 million deaths occur worldwide each year because of outdoor and indoor air pollution.

And these are just the current dangers. 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." As the Pope has reminded us so powerfully in his recent encyclical, "we are one human family," responsible for one another and especially for those people most vulnerable, whether because of age, income, health status, or geography.

We owe it to each other and ourselves not to let those gains falter, and to move quickly away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner, healthier energy and a more economically vibrant future.

A 2011 study found that the U.S. spent $14 billion in health-related costs in response to just six climate change-related events that happened between 2002 and 2009. Climate change already costs us dearly in dollars, and is harming people's health here and now. But we can avoid those health costs and build healthier, more secure communities as we move toward cleaner energy and prepare communities to be more resilient to climate change's effects. Here's just one example of the kind of economic vibrancy the Lancet report authors cite: "a net global increase of 900,000 jobs ..., if the level of renewable energy in global final consumption doubles from 18% in 2010 to 36% by 2030."

Not only will solutions like energy efficiency, renewable energy and more walkable/bikeable communities lead to "direct reductions in the burden of ill-health, enhance community resilience, alleviate poverty, and address global inequity," they will also reduce healthcare costs, "delivering potentially large cost savings, and enable investments in stronger, more resilient health systems."

Climate change isn't just a crisis, though certainly it is that, the Lancet authors tell us. It's also an opportunity -- to avoid the worst health effects of climate change (and reduce human pain and suffering, plus save health costs), to create more jobs, and, most importantly, to protect people's health by reducing carbon pollution and building more climate-resilient communities here in the U.S. and around the world. With the Lancet report, the health and medical communities highlight this opportunity to address climate change now, improve health here and now, and leave our children and grandchildren a legacy of healthier, more secure global communities.


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