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PSR Executive Director Attends International Climate Meeting

Posted by Catherine Thomasson, MD on January 22, 2014
Prince Charles and Dr. Chivian

Last month, I went to London to represent PSR at the first international meeting of the Global Climate and Health Alliance hosted by His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales.  The purpose of the conference was to bring the medical community and policymakers together regarding the public health implications from climate change and address the health sector’s role in naming the co-benefits of mitigation.  Like other scientists, health providers are becoming increasingly alarmed at the effects of climate change; the public policy response we’ve seen to date has been close to nil.

Prince Charles and Dr. Thomasson

Dr. Eric Chivian, founder of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard, and other medical leaders convinced Prince Charles to convene the meeting.  The Prince of Wales sent invitations out widely. Dr. David McCoy and Sir Andy Haines, former Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medical, represented PSR's British affiliate, MedAct.  Representatives from the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and international medical groups such as the World Medical Association (WMA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) attended as well.

From the United States, I saw many familiar faces:  Gary Cohen, MD, founder of Health Care without Harm, Kathy Gerwig, Environmental Stewardship Officer at Kaiser Permanente, and research and policy advocates including PSR member Jonathan Patz, MD, from the University of Wisconsin. 

Dr. Thomasson and Dr. Maria Neira, WHO Director of Public Health and Environment

All participants agreed that climate change is impacting human health already.  The cause?  Human combustion of fossil fuels, decimation of forests and agricultural practices that will accelerate us toward a full blown public health disaster.  Presenters issued updated materials on health impacts and co-benefits of solutions.

Initial discussions covered the efforts being undertaken to communicate the public health threats. Ultimately, the medical community voice may be the one of the most important to spur the public to take action to prevent climate change.

Sir Andy Haines and Dr. David McCoy of MedAct with Dr. Thomasson

At midday, we were surprised when a small herd of German shepherds was escorted into the conference room.  A security team led the dogs about, allowing them to sniff for explosives.  Then Prince Charles quietly joined us.  Like others in the room, His Royal Highness engaged in high level dialogue about the slow-motion global health crisis in the making and the need for a carefully framed message to galvanize change within the next two years.

Ideas and promises for action were exchanged amongst many of those present; I witnessed one such conversation take place with a representative of the World Bank, the United Kingdom health service and a representative from Johnson & Johnson.  I came away with links to a very practical email service run by the Global Call for Climate Action.  We’ll be forwarding messages, as appropriate, to our members and climate health activists.

World Bank representatives Timothy Bouley and Ari Bernstein with Dr. Chivian

Health stories on climate impacts cross political, gender and age boundaries and convey the plethora of threats posed by climate change.  When people internalize those stories, they feel motivated and ready for change.  Especially in the U.S, stories linking climate change to American health problems like asthma, chronic lung and heart disease and even infectious diseases like dengue fever and Lyme disease are effective in motivating efforts to mitigate climate change.

You might ask, as I did, why would we all fly to London, burning all that fossil fuel just to meet?  The energy and determination from such a confluence of thoughtful, intelligent and deeply engaged individuals was inspiring.  Our deliberations showed us that the medical community’s voice has been too small!

PSR's Dr. Jonathan Patz with Prince Charles

As a result of the meeting, I came away committing PSR’s resources to a much higher level of communication and outreach.  I want to engage and propel more new health professionals to speak out in their communities.  We’ll train those willing to take action on climate change; we’ll also provide educational materials and advocacy skill-building webinars.  If we raise our voices together, stay visible and loud longer than the climate deniers, we can reach the sleeping public.  Are you with us?

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