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Climate Action Holds Potential for Massive Improvements in Public Health

Posted by Casey Crandell on June 22, 2015

Climate change is the most serious threat to public health of the 21st century, while also presenting massive potential for improvements in public health.

This is the overarching message of the special climate and health report just released by the prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet. The report highlights both sides of the climate change coin – grimly disturbing and potentially exciting.

On the grim side, droughts, flooding, and other severe weather events linked to climate change are expected to increase in frequency and severity as climate change continues. Higher temperatures are increasing ozone levels and exacerbating respiratory issues, while acute heat waves have become more common and deadly.

The report identifies these and other currently occurring public health impacts as likely to increase as average global temperatures rise. Yet even in the face of such threats, The Lancet points out that the public health benefits of taking action to slow climate change can have significant public health benefits in themselves.

Decarbonizing our economy, especially the energy and transportation sector, yields immediate public health gains:

  • Decreasing our reliance on fossil fuel fired power plants in favor of clean renewable energy sources provides massive public health payouts, thanks to the decreases in toxic industrial wastes entering our air and our waterways.
  • Reducing urban emissions typically involves initiatives that convey significant health co-benefits. These initiatives can include campaigns to increase biking and walking, tree planting to clean the air and reduce heat island effects, and other changes in urban design that both reduce emissions and promote public health.

According to the report, the steps necessary to slow climate change and to build resilience are no longer technically or economically unfeasible. The roadblocks to progress at this point are political, the report declares. Policies needed include placing a price on carbon, increasing access to low-carbon affordable energy, and promoting greater energy efficiency in all sectors.

Finally, the report calls on health professionals to play a role in accelerating progress across all these fronts. It notes that health professionals helped overcome similar political roadblocks when dealing with issues like sanitation and smoking, and they must do so again if this latest and even graver threat to public health is to be overcome.

PSR is helping to spread awareness of this important report and its crucial message. PSR member Dr. Perry Sheffield is a speaker at a "launch" event at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, participating on a panel discussing the report's findings and its implication for policy responses here in the U.S.


Michele Brogunier said ..

I am hopeful that the Lancet report will broadly engage public health officials and physician leaders in addressing human related factors in climate disruption. Articulating the potential for positive change at the community and individual level is something physician's leaders can do.

June 25, 2015
Edo McGowan said ..

Sadly, many of the issues discussed, i.e., climate, water, nuclear weapons (and not mentioned---antibiotic resistance) tie back to how products of wastewater are treated (actually not treated) and used. Wastewater plants are major generators of greenhouse gasses by their current much antiquated designs. Their byproducts generate large volumes of greenhouse gasses and their disposal sees yet more greenhouse gas generation. Additionally, the effluent from these plants carries industrial levels of antibiotic resistant microbes into the nations waterways and the solids, containing high levels of resistant organisms are spread across the nation's farmland and forests, where they release 4,000 cu ft of methane (84,000cu ft CO2) per ton applied. This behavior will also see the extension of antibiotic resistance, potentially impacting surgical procedures with increasing post surgical infections. At some point, surgeries may become problematic because of risks related to unstoppable infections. This may also impact battle wounds and thus the side willing to endure the higher level of infection and having the most troops to waste may prevail. To mitigate that, we may see the use of short-term non-contaminating nuclear weapons such as neutron materials. Point, take a closer look at the above discussed but disjointed issues; they may have, in part, a collective base. Dr Edo McGowan

June 23, 2015
Anonymous said ..

Why is there no politician who can win an election championing the kind of legislation that will both mitigate global warming and obviously radically improve the overall health of the public? Without solving this problem I don't see how a group of physicians can in anyway effect the needed political changes. There needs to be a sense of public urgency and knowledge that a solution is very real and possible, Major media needs to put this debate front and center but I don't see this happening. I am not optimistic even with the Lancet Report that the will, will find a way.

June 23, 2015
Jack S Tuber, D.O. said ..

I agree with these findings. I hope my colleagues who are skeptics are able to read this report and reanalyze their opinions.

June 23, 2015
John Braico, MD said ..

I strongly agree with the findings, conclusions and recommendations on improving environmental health by aggressively dealing with fossil fuel use an associated climate change

June 23, 2015

Comments closed.