Climate Action Holds Potential for Massive Improvements in Public Health
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.