Climate change is literally killing us, according to some of the nation’s leading medical practitioners, who have found direct and indirect links between it and an increase in respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular disease and heat-related deaths. Americans also face increased risks to their health and well-being from injuries and premature deaths related to extreme weather events.
With the United States spending more on health care than any other industrialized nation, increased health risks also are business risks. Besides the fact that a more sickly citizenry will be less productive, the more money spent on hospital bills means there will be less to spend on other goods and services. Investing in fighting climate change today will not only make us healthier, but wealthier tomorrow.
In recognition of the threat that climate change poses to the public health, President Obama last month announced a series of actions aimed at improving the country’s understanding of the health impacts of climate change in the U.S.
The White House brought together health and medical professionals, academics and other key stakeholders through a series of convenings. These included a workshop to develop data and tools that empower people and communities with the science-based information and tools they need to protect public health in the face of climate change, and another on mental health and wellness impacts of climate change. Later this spring, the surgeon general will host a White House Climate Change and Health Summit that will dive deeper into the the issue of climate change as a public health issue.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also published a report highlighting successful actions state and local leaders are taking to reduce the health impacts of climate change in New York City, San Francisco, Maine, Minnesota, Arizona, Michigan, California and New York. The CDC also released a toolkit illustrating best practices for promoting resilient health care infrastructure.
In an effort to increase access to climate and health data, the White House is expanding its Climate Data Initiative to include more than 150 health-relevant datasets, challenging innovators to use them to better inform scientists and communities about how to identify, minimize and prevent the health impacts of climate change. The initiative is part of President Obama’s climate plan, outlined in June 2013.
A number of companies, including Google, Microsoft and Intel, already have committed to leveraging these data sets to generate tools, apps and insights to help communities and businesses reduce the health impacts of climate change. Microsoft, for example, gave a year of free cloud computing to 40 climate change scientists and decision-makers. The company also launched a free resource, Adaptable FetchClimate, for retrieving past and present observations and for future climate-prediction information.
Looking to the future of the health profession, the White House announced a coalition of Deans from 30 medical, public health and nursing schools around the country, who are committing to ensuring that the next generation of health professionals is trained to address the health impacts of climate change.
The White House also released a draft report by the interagency U.S. Global Climate Research Program confirmed that climate change is a clear and present danger to all Americans. This report covers weather and climate extremes, air quality, vector borne diseases, water- and food-related issues, mental health and well-being, as well as risks facing vulnerable segments of the population, such as children, the elderly and people with existing health conditions. It will be open for public comment and formal peer review, the White House said.
There already is mounting evidence that taking action to fight climate change has clear public health benefits. A recent study by researchers at Syracuse and Harvard Universities found that the new carbon emissions standards that were proposed last year for coal-fired power plants in the U.S. would substantially improve human health and prevent more than 3,000 premature deaths per year.
The rule’s health benefits would be indirect — carbon emissions don’t create direct health threats. However, emissions from coal-fired plants include several pollutants, such as soot and ozone, which are directly linked to illnesses such as asthma and lung disease. In the past three decades, the percentage of Americans with asthma has more than doubled, the White House says.