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An Indian worker splashes water on his face to cool himself on a hot summer afternoon in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, India, June 13, 2019. Severe heat wave conditions are sweeping north and western parts of India with maximum temperature soaring to 48 degree Celsius (118 F) in some areas.
Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP
Health

Major Health Groups Call Climate Change a 'True Public Health Emergency'

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Medical professionals have recently begun to urge policymakers to view climate change through the lens of public health. The United Nations’ Global Goals have followed this lead, and call on countries to protect the global environment to ensure people can survive and thrive. You can join us in taking action on this issue here

Climate change is rapidly becoming a public health emergency, 74 leading medical and public health groups said in a call to action released Monday.

Between powerful heat waves affecting more countries and disease-carrying pests entering new areas because of warmer weather, the health risks of climate change are multifaceted and grow more dangerous each year. In the statement, the medical groups said that political, business, and civic leaders have to take decisive action to curb greenhouse gas emissions to protect the welfare of citizens. 

“Climate change may well be harming plants, bees, and polar bears,” Ed Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change and a lead author of the statement, told Global Citizen. 

“But it’s also harming the health of Americans and people around the world,” he added. “In particular, it’s harming our children’s health, our parents’ health, and people in the poorest communities. And that’s not OK.”

The health professionals, who come from organizations including the American Medical Association and the American Heart Association, call for 10 policy changes to address climate change. 

First and foremost, they want the United States to recommit to the Paris climate agreement, which President Donald Trump infamously withdrew from last year

“Climate change is a global problem,” Maibach said. “Even though it’s felt locally, if we don’t address it globally, then we will never fundamentally stem the tide of this slowly unfolding public health emergency.” 

The group wants the country to enact a price on carbon and work toward phasing out fossil fuels in the transportation sector, two policies that have faced legislative resistance over the past decade. 

The effort to make vehicles more sustainable has recently come under attack by the Trump administration, which is trying to roll back a rule that would have forced automakers to develop more efficient cars. 

Other recommendations include promoting sustainable agriculture, ensuring the right to clean water and air, and helping workers in the fossil fuel industry transition to new careers. 

Solar panel technician, solar energy, solar powerImage: Stephen Yang / The Solutions Project

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By approaching the issue from a public health perspective, the medical groups could overcome the partisan divide that has long thwarted climate action in the US, according to Maibach.

>“Candidates at all levels of government would be very wise to lean in and pledge to adopt climate and health solutions,” he said. “Climate solutions are health solutions and health solutions are climate solutions.”

The announcement isn’t the first time medical professionals have warned that climate change has an often overlooked public health component.

The World Health Organization considers climate change the greatest health risk of the 21st century, and the Medical Society Consortium on Climate Change and Health formed a few years ago to lobby for climate action in the US

In recent years, medical professionals have noted an abundance of health problems caused or exacerbated by climate change, underlining the fact that people depend on a stable and clean to survive and thrive.

As temperatures continue to rise around the world, more people are being subjected to blistering heat waves. Already this year, at least 36 people have died in India during a brutal heat wave that’s happening amid a severe drought. 

“More people die from heat waves in America and around the world than from most other weather events,” Maibach said. “It’s a surprisingly large number of people who are hospitalized and killed.”

Portugal-Wildfires-HERO.jpgImage: Armando Franca/AP

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Rising temperatures also make conditions more dry in parts of many countries, which raises the risk of wildfires and dust storms. These events, in turn, fill the air with harmful particles that can lead to a range of lung, heart, and other diseases. 

“A warmer environment actually creates more air pollution,” Maibach said. “It raises the ground-level ozone that we already have and bakes it into more concentrated levels of smog, which is incredibly harmful both in the short-term, precipitating more heart attacks and asthma attacks, but it’s also incredibly important in a chronic sense. It’s incredibly harmful to people’s brains, including the brains of children who aren’t born.”

Pests such as mosquitoes and ticks entering new areas each year are another side effect of warmer weather. By 2080, an additional 1 billion people could be exposed to deadly mosquito-borne diseases, and tick-borne diseases are rapidly increasing in the US. 

Extreme weather events made worse by climate change cause another set of health consequences. For example, extreme precipitation during a hurricane can cause chemical or wastewater facilities to become flooded, which could lead to water sources becoming contaminated.

Environmental-Photos-Of-The-Year-17.jpgImage: David J. Phillip/AP

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Water sources will also be affected by changing precipitation patterns around the world, which could leave two-thirds of the global population without enough water by 2030. 

Many doctors have begun to notice the impacts of climate change among their patients, but Maibach said that the job of educating the public on the link between the environment and health should involve all sectors of society. 

“There’s no question that health care officials are consequential,” he said. “But now the highest leveraged way in which they can help solve this problem is to engage with political leaders, business leaders, and civic leaders.”