In this issue of the Journal, Haines and Ebi summarize the devastating effects that the global burning of fossil fuels is having on our planet (pages 263–273). 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 insectborne 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 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that we need to cut global greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and entirely by 2040 to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. Yet these emissions hit a record high in 2018. Rapid but equitable changes in energy, transportation, and other economic sectors are needed if we are even to begin to meet the requisite emissions-reduction targets. Tackling this challenge may feel overwhelming, but physicians are well placed and, we believe, morally bound to take a lead role in confronting climate change with the urgency that it demands.
Individual lifestyle actions (e.g., walking or cycling rather than driving, eating less meat, reducing food waste, and conserving energy) are the easiest for us to undertake, offer many benefits for personal wellness, and allow us to model health-promoting behaviors as we reduce our environmental footprint. But individual actions are far from enough to address the challenge we collectively face. The financial interests of organizations vested in the fossil fuel industry, a federal administration that disavows climate science and its own responsibility to act, and inertia are powerful countervailing forces. Changing our institutions and society will therefore require concerted, organized, and forceful efforts.
Most Americans perceive climate change as a distant problem that will not affect them personally. Others simply feel powerless. As trusted sources of health information, physicians can educate our colleagues, patients, and students about the health effects of climate change and the need for rapid reductions in fossil fuel use. We can help motivate people to act by clarifying the links between environmental degradation and tangible problems, such as air pollution, insectborne diseases, and heatstroke. We can also emphasize the health benefits that will accrue as we move to alternative sources of energy.
The article goes on to talk about changes that hospitals and clinics can make as the health care sector accounts for nearly 1/10th of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and reportedly would rank seventh in the quantity of such emissions internationally if it were its own country.
Climate change is not a distant problem that may affect your great-grandchildren. It is here now and it’s affecting all of us. We are truly at a tipping point. If radical change does not occur soon, it will be too late.
Source: January 17, 2019 New England Journal of Medicine