Is there a doctor in the House? Letter on climate change out of step with medical community

Last Friday, 11 Republican members of Congress who are also doctors wrote a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. The letter questioned EPA’s assertions about the health benefits from EPA’s upcoming limits on carbon pollution from new and existing power plants.

But these 11 GOP doctors in the House (of Representatives) don’t represent the views of the U.S. medical community. In fact, the assertions of these eleven members run counter to those of professional societies that represent 11 thousand or more doctors, nurses, and public health professionals -- the clinicians who spend hours each week in practice with patients, and health departments whose efforts help us cope with heat waves, air pollution, storms and flooding, and the spread of disease-carrying insects – the kinds of events affected by climate change.

Leading professional societies that collectively represent many thousands of doctors, nurses, health and public health professionals agree that climate change threatens health, based on scientific evidence. These include: the American Public Health Association, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Thoracic Society (experts in respiratory health), the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology, the American Physical Society, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the American Nurses Association, and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, among others.

Climate change is a matter of health that demands urgent attention to limit its worst effects. In 2009 a paper in the prestigious journal The Lancet stated that, “Climate change could be the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.” Besides the health community, 97% of climate scientists agree that human activities are the main cause of climate change. Most of the world’s leading scientific organizations have issued public statements to this effect, including more than a dozen American scientific associations.

Furthermore, 11 international academies of science – including the US National Academies of Science – have issued a joint statement saying that climate change is real, humans must reduce its cause – heat-trapping carbon pollution, even while we prepare for the effects we now can’t avoid.

The health benefits of reducing carbon pollution and limiting the climate change it causes include avoiding billions of dollars in health-related costs to treat injuries from storms, respiratory illnesses made worse when searing summers increase air pollution, or when we consider the lives lost during heat waves, which are increasing in frequency, intensity and duration with climate change. One 2011 study estimated there were $14 billion in health-related costs during six events from 2002-2009 in the U.S. from types of events affected by climate change. Those are billions of dollars in costs that need to be factored in when we talk about climate change’s burden on health.

Besides limiting the worst future effects of climate change, there are enormously important simultaneous health benefits we can enjoy today from reducing carbon pollution. Because fossil-fuel-burning power plants emit a number of air pollutants other than carbon dioxide, the reduction of carbon pollution (especially through increases in energy efficiency, wind, and solar power) is associated with clear health benefits beyond avoided climate change impacts. Sometimes called “co-benefits,” these pluses for health include those from the reduction of air pollutants like fine particles, and the precursor chemicals to ozone smog. Exposure to those pollutants in the air has been linked to increases in premature death, hospitalization, and emergency room visits. Asking EPA to minimize these health pluses is akin to asking EPA to arbitrarily choose which health costs and benefits to include in their analysis. EPA must include all the costs and benefits, including the co-benefits of reducing air pollutants other than carbon dioxide. Communities that already experience a disproportionate burden of air pollution and its health effects – communities of color and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods – stand especially to benefit.

The actions we take today make all the difference in terms of what we’ll have to deal with tomorrow. If one of the guiding principles of medicine is, “First, do no harm,” then it’s up to us to put the brakes on these myriad climate-health harms at their source, with limits on heat-trapping carbon pollution emitted by burning fossil fuels. An NRDC analysis shows that the benefits of reducing carbon pollution -- in saved lives, reduced illnesses, and climate change avoided -- outweigh costs as much as 15 times.

You don’t have to be a doctor to understand that limiting more climate change is a prescription for healthier, more secure communities, today and tomorrow, too.