Doctors Remind Politicians of Health Consequences of Failure to Address Climate Change

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Vote-hungry politicians reluctant to act on climate change because they are beholden to the powerful fossil fuel sector just received a poor prognosis from the medical profession.

Climate change is not only happening but it can exacerbate many environmental health risks familiar to clinicians and public health professionals, according to The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Harm from climate change includes respiratory disorders, infectious diseases, food insecurity, and mental health disorders, said the JAMA study, Climate Change: Challenges and Opportunities for Global Health.

Published Tuesday, one day before the UN Climate Summit in New York, the study said health care professionals have an important role in understanding and communicating the related potential health concerns and the co-benefits from reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Part of that implied role, although not directly mentioned in the study, would see doctors reminding politicians to begin dealing aggressively on reducing toxic greenhouse gas emissions caused by coal, oil and gas that are dangerously warming our atmosphere.

Saying that health is inextricably linked to climate change, and canvassing 56 previously published articles related to global warming, the study also noted that many cities will experience more frequent extreme heat days by 2050.

For example, New York City and Milwaukee could have three times their current average number of days hotter than 32 C, which would exacerbate heat stress,” said the study,

The most direct effect of a warming planet is heat stress and associated disorders, the study said, adding heat-related deaths are routinely attributed to causes such as cardiac arrest without citing temperature as the underlying factor.

High-risk groups include elderly persons, the study added, those living in poverty or social isolation, and those with underlying mental illness.

Depression may be aggravated; suicide has long been observed to vary with weather. Dementia is a risk for hospitalization and death during heat waves. Psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia, as well as substance abuse, also are associated with an increased risk of death during extremely hot weather. Increased frequency of kidney stones (likely precipitated by dehydration) also occurs during heat waves.”

The study said other adverse affects caused by climate change include respiratory disorders exacerbated by fine particulate pollutants, such as asthma and allergic disorders; infectious diseases, including vectorborne diseases and water-borne diseases, such as childhood gastrointestinal diseases; food insecurity, including reduced crop yields and an increase in plant diseases; and mental health disorders, such as posttraumatic stress disorder and depression, that are associated with natural disasters.

Deliberate, well-funded attempts to deceive the public and sow confusion over global warming have succeeded, the study said. “Despite robust scientific consensus on climate change, there is widespread perception that scientists disagree, which in turn fuels public disbelief.”

The study suggested that health may be a compelling frame for communication about climate change, reflecting views that change threatens health. “Although further research is needed to define the role of health in climate communication, practical communication resources are becoming available, implying an important role for health care professionals.”

If the JAMA study alone doesn’t encourage some reluctant politicians to begin engaging in the low-carbon future, an accompanying editorial says that doctors should be concerned about climate change and its associated effects on health.

The great gains in well-being in the 20th century occurred because of the concerted effort to improve the health of entire populations,” the editorial said.

Today, in the early part of the 21st century, it is critical to recognize that climate change poses the same threat to health as the lack of sanitation, clean water, and pollution did in the early 20th century. Understanding and characterizing this threat and educating the medical community, public, and policy makers are crucial if the health of the world’s population is to continue to improve during the latter half of the 21st century.”

Together, the study and the editorial represent another important step in establishing a necessary green energy revolution, one that just might include an influential army of stethoscope-wearing doctors telling politicians to embrace healthy living and do the right thing on climate action.

Image credit: Doctor holding a globe in her hands via Shutterstock.

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