Climate change is a public health crisis, and we need every doctor, nurse, and other health professional to help fight it.
As the planet continues to break temperature records, the impacts of the climate crisis are getting worse by the day, and demanding urgent public responses, whether it’s unprecedented wildfires in Australia, record warmth in the Antarctic, or fears of prolonged drought in California.
And, as we write in a commentary published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association, taking strong actions to fight climate change will have benefits across our energy, food, and transportation systems.
Given the huge present and future health and environmental threats posed by climate change, we’ve got to act fast and in new ways to cut carbon pollution and bolster community preparedness. While some argue it will cost us too much, the science shows just the opposite: Actions to drastically cut carbon pollution will help society to achieve many benefits, including cost savings, now and years to come.
Central to those benefits are huge improvements to our health.
Climate-driven threats to our health are a present danger, not some future science fiction. A recent NRDC study of a handful of such climate-related health harms identified $10 billion in health costs in just one recent year. Several of the costly health problems identified in that study, especially those tied to air pollution, can be significantly reduced in the near-term by addressing our addiction to fossil fuels.
Because climate change so clearly threatens our health, medical professionals are sounding the alarm. But beyond that, they’re also helping to explain why action on climate change can help to address many seemingly unrelated health challenges, from malnutrition and obesity to respiratory and heart disease.
Some key highlights from our piece:
- Pollution: Electricity production represents about 28 percent of U.S.greenhouse gas emissions each year.
- Problem: Because of our heavy reliance on polluting fossil fuels to produce electricity, millions of individuals in the United States live in areas that exceed air quality standards and are at risk of serious respiratory and cardiovascular illness. In 2016, an estimated 64,200 premature U.S. deaths were caused by exposure to dangerous fine particulate matter. In the United States, communities of color and those living in poverty are more likely to live in areas near polluting facilities.
- Solutions: Recent efforts to establish emission standards for electricity production, champion energy efficiency, and broaden the deployment of renewable energy demonstrate the substantial benefits of accelerated climate action across the country. An analysis of policies in the United States showed big benefits from renewable portfolio standards that require utilities to source a percentage of their electricity from renewable sources like solar and wind instead of fossil fuels. Currently, 29 states have these renewable portfolio standards, and a recent study identified potential health co-benefits of an estimated $94 per ton of carbon dioxide pollution reduced in 2030, due to avoided premature deaths from six types of air pollution.
- Savings: Stronger action on renewable energy could save costs from avoided emergency department visits and hospitalizations caused by exposure to air pollution. These economic benefits for health substantially exceed air pollution control costs, and are consistent with the estimated 30-to-1 benefit to cost ratio of the Clean Air Act over the last half-century. In fact, new information on the health dangers of air pollution suggests the existing benefit to cost ratio is too low.
- Pollution: Agricultural emissions represent about 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions each year.
- Problem: Food production is increasingly pressured by a growing population, shifting diet demand, and a changing climate. At the same time, agricultural operations contribute to climate change via carbon and methane emissions, with resource-intensive livestock production accounting for a significant proportion. Environmental impacts from agriculture also stem from related land-use change and nutrient run-off. Sadly, about 40 percent of all food in the United States is lost or wasted, leading to unnecessary emissions.
- Solutions: Shifting toward more plant-based diets is a win-win for human health and the planet. Plant-focused diets produce fewer negative environmental impacts and can reduce chronic disease risk in humans. Moreover, healthier diets can yield healthcare cost savings. Reducing food waste, particularly off consumer plates in the United States, can reduce food emissions, save money, and support nutrition. In other contexts, reducing post-harvest crop losses can help combat malnutrition.
- Savings: A transition to more plant-based diets could reduce agricultural emissions, promote health, and generate financial savings. Studies suggest that healthy eating in the United States (defined by plant food-focused dietary guidelines) could potentially generate billions annually in increased productivity, medical savings, and prolonged life expectancy.
- Pollution: The transportation sector represents about 29 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions each year.
- Problem: Global transportation is a major source of greenhouse emissions as well as particulate matter and ozone air pollution. Adverse health effects caused by car-centered transportation systems, such as asthma and inactivity due to car dependency, cost trillions in healthcare spending each year.
- Solutions: Health benefits from engaging in low-carbon active transportation (like walking and cycling) and riding public transportation are numerous, including reduced incidence of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
- Savings: It’s estimated that diabetes treatment costs the United States $327 billion each year, and healthier, climate-friendly modes of transport can help to reduce the huge mental health costs of long, draining commutes in cars.
As we redouble our efforts to cut pollution, we’ve also got to prioritize efforts to improve our ability to cope with the present day impacts of the climate crisis. Preparing communities for the health harms of climate change can reduce risks and help people avoid expensive trips to hospitals and emergency rooms.
As our commentary points out, the medical community can take a stronger role in standing up for climate action by helping to make clear that this problem has very real implications for the health and well-being of us all, because climate solutions can also deliver clear wins for public health.