Rx From Your Doctors: Climate Cure

A medical professional can speak with authority and in detail to explain why climate change is bad for people’s health.

Of all the reasons to insist on clean air — and there are many — public health is arguably the strongest. Badly polluted air is responsible for causing or exacerbating asthma, heart disease, viruses, and various cancers. Alzheimer’s, pediatric neuroinflammation, and dementia have now jumped onto this grim list, as two independent teams of researchers have announced.

Fine particulate matter in polluted air may be invisible, but it embeds deep in the lungs and penetrates into the bloodstream:

“Cells in the brain treat these particles as invaders and react with inflammatory responses, which over the course of time, appear to exacerbate and promote Alzheimer’s disease…. Although the link between air pollution and Alzheimer’s disease is a new scientific frontier, we now have evidence that air pollution, like tobacco, is dangerous to the aging brain.” – Professor Caleb Finch, University of Southern California

View to the south from the Empire State Building on Nov. 24, 1966, one of New York’s worst smog days.
View to the south from the Empire State Building on Nov. 24, 1966, one of New York’s worst smog days.

Health care can be time-consuming, scary and deadly. And for many people, dependable basic health-care coverage is in question. Factor in the continuing impacts of global warming, and it’s a feverish hot mess. Painful social and financial risk abound, for patients, their families and the communities that confront air pollution, changing habitats, rising temperatures and extreme weather events; for the employers that must plan for a vulnerable workforce; and for businesses whose m.o. is affected: tourism in tropical zones where disease-bearing insects thrive, to name one example.

No wonder mental health issues are also on the rise, and muscling in to the equation.

Nearly all of this time, stress, pain, and expense can — and should — be avoided. There are sensible preventative measures to avoid the incidence of calamity.

The prescription:

  • Insist on decreasing harmful emissions. Boldly, and across the board. Wherever you can, individually; wherever we can, together. Your health will improve; everyone’s health will improve; people will be energized, employed, and healthy; sick days will go down, and the economy will hustle.
  • Listen to your trusted medical advisor.

The medical community is in an excellent position to improve this critical solution. “Doctors and nurses are among the most trusted voices in America right now,” Ed Maibach of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication observed to Climate and Health summit attendees earlier this month. “Remember that! Use your influence to educate your patients!”

World Health Organization says 90% of humans breathe dangerously contaminated air.
World Health Organization says 90% of humans breathe dangerously contaminated air.

Four simple talking points for anyone wearing a stethoscope and scrubs:

1) Reinforce the fact that there is a consensus. “97% of climate scientists are convinced that climate change is happening. You can say, That’s enough for me to move on and try to see what can be done so that people aren’t harmed.” Another panelist framed this as risk management: “Even if there’s only a 1% chance, [that] possibility is so cataclysmic that we have to treat it as a certainty.”

2) You earned your M.D.; use it. A medical professional can speak with authority and in detail to explain why climate change is bad for people’s health. (Just as you can about smoking. Or jumping from a plane without a parachute.)

3) Express hope. Offer the solution: an accelerated transition to clean renewable energy. You can say with confidence that we benefit immediately by cleaning up our air and water. Even the “dismissives” (one of Maibach and collaborator Tony Leiserowitz’s “Six Americas”) understand that. “The 9% who may well never understand climate change say they are enthusiastic in large numbers about renewables.”

4) Money talks. When you speak to someone in business, emphasize the financial risk to be managed. Second, mention the enormous economic opportunity — via renewables, water, solar, grid, battery storage — and the associated jobs. The Department of Labor states that wind tech is the fastest-growing employment opportunity in the US, growing annually by 108%. Not coal. Wind.

For an excellent example of measurable improvements, point to RGGI, short for “Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative,” the first mandatory market-based program in the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. How has RGGI affected the health of citizens? Key findings in a new report show sicknesses avoided, lives saved, increased productivity, and tens of billions of dollars that didn’t have to be spent on managing this adversity in the RGGI states and in neighboring states. The overall diagnosis is significantly improving via this CO2-reduction regime across myriad sectors, including power generation, transportation, infrastructure, and the built environment.

The American public is aroused, calling for action from coast to coast. Health-care and climate change are high on the list of concerns. The insurance industry is increasingly engaged. Corporations are leading by example, targeting ambitious emissions reductions. In several notable cases, conventional energy companies are aggressively retooling for the realities of climate change. We should cheer them on, for everyone’s sake.

The inherent vulnerability of children cannot be overstated: In addition to increased asthma exacerbations and emergency room visits, elevated ozone levels have a disproportionate effect in younger children with asthma and also affect children with other chronic lung diseases like cystic fibrosis.” —Dr. Susan Pacheco, Houston, Texas

Are we ready and willing to take the medicine?

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