Guest Blog: Time is of the essence

Jan 31, 2019

Key findings from two critical reports on climate change

By: Dorothy Rawleigh

Dorothy Rawleigh Headshot 2019

Climate change will continue to cause increasing temperatures, extremes of precipitation, flooding events, catastrophic wildfires, ocean acidification and warming, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment released by the Trump administration last November. These changes will intensify the already significant impact on the U.S. economy, human health, air quality, water resources, agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and natural ecosystems.

Climate resilience benefits the economy

The congressionally mandated report, conducted every four years, combines the work of 300 scientists and 13 federal agencies. The report warns that the future severity of climate impacts will depend on actions taken now to reduce greenhouse gases and increase adaptation efforts.

A separate U.N. report, also released last November, warns that countries must triple their efforts to reduce emissions by a quarter by 2030 in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. Swift action taken to limit greenhouses and invest in adaptation measures during this short window of time will substantially benefit the U.S. economy and reduce risks, including avoiding thousands of deaths each year.

Key impacts to the Southeast

The following are key findings from the report for current and future impacts to the Southeastern United States:

  • Increased warm nights above 75°F.
  • Increasing exposure to dangerously high temperatures, humidity, and new local diseases.
  • Increasing heavy precipitation and extreme weather events.
  • Extreme weather events will likely negatively impact drinking water and wastewater infrastructure.
  • High tide coastal flooding will continue to impact businesses, neighborhoods, infrastructure, transportation, and ecosystems.
  • Increases in extreme rainfall will impact the quality of life of permanent residents as well as tourists.
  • Warming temperatures have the potential to expand mosquito habitat and related infectious disease risk.
  • Increase wildfire occurrence from prolonged and intense drought.

 

Furthermore, climate change tends to compound existing vulnerabilities and exacerbate existing inequities. Already poor rural regions in the Southeast are expected to continue incurring greater losses than elsewhere in the United States. Existing health disparities like disease prevalence and access to care will influence the degree of impact from climate-related threats.

Lancet and APHA report tracks progress on climate health

Building upon the National Climate Assessment is the Lancet Countdown’s 2018 Report and the accompanying U.S. brief, co-authored by the American Public Health Association (APHA). The report, also released last November, tracks progress on health and climate change and is a global, interdisciplinary research collaboration between leading academic institutions, the United Nations and intergovernmental agencies.

The Lancet Commission on Health and Climate has concluded that while unmitigated climate change would undermine 50 years of public health gains, responding to it could represent the “greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.”

At the U.S. launch of the report, Georges Benjamin, executive director of APHA, urged a call to action. “We need to move forward with policies like the Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions, provide resources to state and local health departments to address the health impacts of climate change, muster the political will to act on climate now. This is a civil rights issue.”

Healthcare and public health departments can do more

The Lancet report found similar climate health impacts as the National Climate Assessment and noted healthcare and public health organizations can lead climate health preparedness.

  • Hospitals can lead America’s efforts to transform the energy system. Responsible for approximately 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by most recent estimates, the U.S. health sector is a major contributor to climate change.
  • While public health departments across America are responding to climate change, health-related adaptation spending is inadequate for the challenge ahead. Critical components of local health sector adaptation include cross-sectoral collaboration.
  • Educating health professionals is key to preparedness. It is critical that health providers inform their patients, communities, and policymakers about the health harms of climate change. Educating Americans about the health impacts of climate change can increase public engagement and decrease political polarization.
  • Health organizations and health professionals should advocate for local and state laws that transition away from fossil fuels, including laws that require state utilities to generate electricity from 100% carbon-free sources in the near future.

 

Healthcare organizations are taking the lead

Recently 28 healthcare organizations made a pledge to the U.S. Paris Agreement commitments and globally, healthcare organizations committed to divest $3.28 billion from fossil fuels in 2017. Additionally, the International Federation of Medical Students Association has called for every medical school curriculum to include an element of climate-health by 2020 and the Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education has developed Climate and Health Care Competencies for health professional students which can act as a guide for health institutions.

Speaking on the global report, Lancet Countdown report author and emergency physician Jeremy Hess summed up the role of medical advocates in light of the latest climate change findings and predictions. “Climate change is the biggest public health threat of the 21st century and one of the greatest opportunities for action… Health professionals are trusted messengers who can provide patients, other professionals and the public with reliable information needed to effect change. We don’t have a national adaptation plan, but we do have local public health solutions.”

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