Leading experts in the medical community, including two former U.S. Surgeons General, recently filed supporting briefs backing a youth climate lawsuit against the federal government because, like the current coronavirus pandemic, the climate crisis poses “unprecedented threats to public health and safety.”
From increased risk of asthma and respiratory illnesses to the spread of vector-borne disease, the unfolding climate crisis comes with significant health hazards, and children are particularly vulnerable, according to these medical experts.
“The medical community agrees that children in the United States will face compounded health harms over the course of their lives if our current trajectory of [greenhouse gas] emissions continues; ‘[w]ithout significant intervention, this new era will come to define the health of an entire generation,’” public health experts stated in their legal brief.
That brief backs a group of 21 youth plaintiffs seeking judicial intervention to order the U.S. government to devise a plan for rapidly turning away from fossil fuels and drawing down greenhouse gas emissions. The lawsuit Juliana v. United States, first filed in 2015, alleges that the federal government’s actions enabling a fossil fuel-based energy system violate the Constitutional rights of young people.
In January a pair of judges on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the case due to concerns about a court ordering the government to take large-scale climate action. The plaintiffs filed a petition earlier this month asking the full Ninth Court to review this decision. Experts in law, children’s and human rights, and public health recently filed amicus or supporting briefs urging the court to revive the case and allow it to proceed to trial.
Two of the 10 briefs filed came from public health experts. One, from former Surgeons General Dr. David Satcher and Dr. Richard Carmona, referred to the climate crisis as an “unprecedented public health threat” and said that courts can and should play a role.
“In cases like this, where children’s health and very lives are at stake, their injuries can and should be redressed by the courts,” Satcher and Carmona wrote. They explained that they usually “do not involve themselves in judicial matters, but feel compelled to make an exception in this case.” And as they wrote in an op-ed last year, “our views on this issue transcend political affiliation.” It is an issue, they say, that “represents a profound threat to the public’s well-being.”
Op-ed from two former U.S. surgeons general: Because #climatechange represents a profound threat to the public’s well-being, we support the Juliana 21 climate lawsuit https://t.co/KgcIOqZxSI via @nytimes #WorldEnvironmentDay2019 pic.twitter.com/gvbfJsM7Ik
— Climate Nexus (@ClimateNexus) June 5, 2019
Another brief, filed on behalf of leading experts in public health and medicine and organizations representing thousands of health professionals, echoed this warning and described some of the health impacts stemming from climate change that disproportionately burden the nation’s youth. Young people in the U.S. born after 1995, the same generation as the Juliana plaintiffs, will suffer more from climate-related health impacts, the health experts say.
“The Juliana Generation faces an increasing burden of heat exposure, extreme weather events, infectious disease, and less nutritious, more expensive food,” they write in their brief. Drought, for example, worsens wildfires, which are linked to poor air quality and respiratory disease.
Air pollution associated with fossil fuel emissions is also a concern. “The production and use of fossil fuels not only emit [greenhouse gas emissions], but also emit other air pollutants that pose hazards to children’s health,” the health experts’ brief explains. Exposure to pollutants like ozone and fine particulate matter could increase children’s risk of developing asthma or other respiratory conditions like bronchitis.
And air pollution likely exacerbates the challenge of fighting respiratory infections like COVID-19. Although there is not yet definitive data on the link between air pollution and COVID-19, scientists studying the SARS coronavirus in 2003 found that infected people living in areas with higher air pollution levels were 84 percent more likely to die than those in less polluted areas. Research shows that communities of color are more likely to live with air pollution.
New | “We have been suffering horribly with health issues here, and struggling for our lives already from the man-made epidemic, I don’t have any good feelings of how we are going to fare suffering now from a pandemic.” #CancerAlley #COVID19 https://t.co/T4r4pfF4pl
— DeSmogBlog (@DeSmogBlog) March 25, 2020
The climate crisis does not necessarily mean there will be more outbreaks of disease like the current coronavirus, but it does increase the risk of certain infectious diseases spread by ticks and mosquitoes or related to fungal or bacterial exposure in soil and water linked to rising temperatures. Ticks carrying Lyme disease are becoming much more prevalent in a warming world, and a mosquito that transmits disease-causing viruses like dengue and Zika is also increasing its range as temperatures rise.
“Between 2004 and 2016, annual reports of vector-borne diseases in the United States more than doubled and the areas reporting diseases expanded,” the health experts’ brief states. The Infectious Diseases Society of America says it “recognizes climate change and its impacts as a public health emergency in the United States and around the world.”
As the U.S. battles its most serious public health crisis in recent memory, medical professionals are telling us not to lose sight of the urgency of addressing climate change and associated health impacts. “Adverse public health impacts can be significantly mitigated if the federal government acts to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions,” the health experts write. “The window of opportunity for such action, however, is rapidly closing.”
Main image: Protesters “die-in” at COP25 climate summit. Credit: John Englart, CC BY–SA 2.0