Climate change and health: a new call to action for doctors

Two new articles appeared in the January issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, recognizing the health impacts of climate change and the gap in environmental justice. Most frequently cited, sometimes with alarmist headlines, is  “The Imperative for Climate Action to Protect Health” (Jan. 17)  (registration required). The authors state that the World Health Organization may have underestimated the health effects of climate cop24_health_climate_change_reportchange when it predicted in a 2018 report that climate change will kill 250,000 people per year between 2030 and 2050.  The NEJM authors Haines and Ebi state: “We think the impact is more difficult to quantify because there is also population displacement and a range of additional factors like food production and crop yields, and the increase in heat that will limit labour productivity from farmers in tropical regions that wasn’t taken into account, among other factors. ”  They point to the need for investment and policies to promote adaptation to reduce health risks.

The other article in January’s New England Journal of Medicine is an overview of the issue and a more direct call to action for doctors.  ” Climate Change: A health emergency ”   by Drs. Caren G. Solomon and Regina C. LaRocque states:    “Disruption of our climate system, once a theoretical concern, is now occurring in plain view — with a growing human toll brought by powerful storms, flooding, droughts, wildfires, and rising numbers of insect borne diseases. Psychological stress, political instability, forced migration, and conflict are other unsettling consequences. In addition, particulate air pollutants released by burning fossil fuels are shortening human life in many regions of the world. These effects of climate disruption are fundamentally health issues, and they pose existential risks to all of us. People who are sick or poor will suffer the most….As physicians, we have a special responsibility to safeguard health and alleviate suffering. Working to rapidly curtail greenhouse gas emissions is now essential to our healing mission….  The authors’ call to action includes: “working with medical students on climate action, supporting the undergraduate divestment movement, joining forces with like-minded health professionals, and speaking with our legislators. “

In Canada, the Canadian Association for Physicians and the Environment (CAPE)   is leading the way on such education and advocacy – a compilation of their press releases  reveals the broad range of their actions. Most recently, on January 15, CAPE announced  that the Ontario Court of Appeal has granted intervenor status to the Intergenerational Climate Coalition, of which  CAPE is a member, to defend the constitutionality of the federal pricing of climate emissions, challenged by the Ontario provincial government in a case to be heard in April 2019.  Other members of the Intergenerational Climate Coalition are Generation Squeeze,  Saskatchewan Public Health Association, the Public Health Association of BC, the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children , and the Youth Climate Lab.  The same group announced in December 2018  that it has intervenor status in the Saskatchewan government’s challenge to the federal carbon tax plan.

UPDATE: 

A February 5 press release states: “Together, representatives from the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) , the Canadian Medical Association (CMA)  , the Canadian Nurses Association (CNA), the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA) and the Urban Public Health Network (UPHN) are calling for action: asking federal parties to recognize that climate change is the greatest public health challenge of the 21st century, and to make climate solutions a priority in the 2019 federal election.”

Dr. Gigi Osler, President of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) is quoted  : “Climate change is no longer some abstract idea that may harm future generations or people on the other side of the globe; it’s a reality that’s already harming the physical and mental health of Canadians. We cannot afford to treat climate change as a wedge issue. We must treat it as the public health crisis that it is.”

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