Talking about Climate Change Is a Medical Professional’s Duty

Apr 17, 2017

“Why don’t people talk about climate change?” Greg Kearney, assistant professor of public health in the East Carolina University Brody School of Medicine, asked at the Climate Change & Health Symposium the university hosted in March. “There’s a low perception of risk, and when there’s a low perception of risk, there’s cognitive disconnect.”

The goal of the conference was to educate medical, allied health and public health students and practitioners in Eastern NC about the effect of climate change on health, understand the risks, and take action, starting with having conversations with family members, colleagues, and policy-makers. Clean Air Carolina co-sponsored the symposium and Medical Advocates for Healthy Air exhibited and presented on the role of medical and health professionals in policy advocacy.

The conference opened with a talk and dance by Patrick Suarez, an occupational therapist who is a member of the Meherrin Indian tribe. Suarez reported seeing an increase in patients coming to rehab for the flu and sinus infections, and experiencing an expansion of allergy season from a couple of months a year to year-round. He also expressed concern about the threats to traditional crops due to erratic and extreme weather, reminding us of Native American proverb, “you can’t eat money.”

Public Health Preparation

George Luber, Chief of the Climate and Health Program at the Centers for Disease Control, characterized the health impacts due to rising temperatures and worsening air quality “morbidity by 1,000 cuts.” Those cuts include increased ozone formation, novel diseases like Zika, algal blooms in water supplies, food insecurity and the loss of cultural resources. Equally concerning, severe weather events can turn into complex emergencies that cause multiple system failure where need exceeds response capacity. It’s not just coastal cities that suffer the effects of hurricanes, Dr. Luber noted. The health systems in Austin, TX, hundreds of miles from New Orleans, was inundated by the “Katrina diaspora” following Hurricane Katrina. The CDC is helping states and even other countries prepare for climate change health impacts by implementing the BRACE Framework, which includes forecasting impacts, assessing options, and creating an implementation plan.

Policy Advocacy Role for Health Professionals

When it comes to addressing the causes of climate change, we have the technology – all that we lack is the political will. Some local governments and state legislators have been working to slow the transition to clean renewables in NC. MAHA spoke to symposium participants about the uniquely valuable role that medical and health professionals have to play in the societal response to this global challenge. Medical and health professionals can show how policy achievements like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Smokestacks Act have improved public health, and speak to policy-makers about the health co-benefits of climate policy. Clean, renewable energy, mass transit and clean transportation not only eliminate explosions and leaks from methane gas infrastructure and do not emit toxins, they also reduce electricity bills, reduce risk of respiratory and cardiovascular problems, and increase exercise and social interaction. In short, talking about the need for clean energy policy is an essential component of advocating for comprehensive patient health.