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Talking about Climate and Health as a Clinician: You Should, Too!

By Michael Donnenberg, MD

Last week I gave a presentation entitled “The Health Effects of Climate Damage” for Grand Rounds in the Department of Internal Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. I’m writing about the experience here to encourage clinicians like myself to do something similar.

Although I’ve given plenty of talks before and feel comfortable doing so, this one was different. I’m usually invited to speak at medical and scientific venues because I’m knowledgeable about the topic. On this occasion, I contacted the organizer and offered to speak before becoming sufficiently knowledgeable. I believe the topic of climate change and health impacts needs to be discussed among clinicians and I wanted to be someone who really understood the topic. When the offer was accepted, I suddenly had to learn a lot. Fortunately, resources abound.

In the past year I’ve become more actively involved in climate issues as a Climate Ambassador for Physicians for Social Responsibility. Through that organization, I was invited to attend the Climate for Health Ambassadors Training in December, jointly hosted by Climate for Health, PSR, and the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments. I got a terrific suite of resources from them, including advice, reports, and infographics. I also found beautiful graphs and stats online from NASA and NOAA, which I incorporated into my slides with attribution. It’s reassuring that federal government agencies are still great sources for accurate climate data. A recent New York Times opinion piece also helped me to temper the bleak facts with enthusiasm and resolve and to help my audience at Grand Rounds imagine all the benefits that will result when we come together to tackle our greatest challenge.

Devising the talk was a lot of work, but it’s the kind of work I enjoy. I divided the presentation into four parts with headline titles: “Our Planet is on Fire,” “Climate Damage Is Catastrophic,” “Climate Damage Affects Health,” and “Be Part of the Solution.”

When the day arrived, I felt prepared. There were about 120 people in the audience. I was glad that I left plenty of time for comments and questions because a vigorous discussion ensued. Several people asked for more details about solutions and resources I had mentioned. I was happy to oblige. Some expressed ideas and opinions, which required only agreement and encouragement. Two individuals expressed fatalistic sentiments. These can be more difficult to diffuse. My response was that their dire predictions reflect one path we can choose by inaction, but that I preferred to join forces to demand that we abandon fossil fuels and reinvest in nature for everyone’s benefit.

I hope that this post will encourage you to take up the charge and spread the message among your colleagues. I predict that you will find that the experience is personally rewarding and well worth the effort.

Dr. Michael Donnenberg is the Senior Associate Dean for Research and Research Training and Director of the MD-PhD Program and Professor of Internal Medicine and Infectious Disease at Virginia Commonwealth University. 

Join the PSR Climate Ambassadors project, an exciting group of health activists who are committed to advocating for a healthier safer world for present and future generations.