Climate change, or changes in weather extremes, are having an increasingly harmful effect on human health. Last year, the 20th consecutive year in which the US experienced above average annual temperatures, saw increasing instances of heat related ailments and deaths and increases in related exacerbations of chronic, including cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, respiratory and mental health, conditions as well as the spread of climate change-related food pathogens and vector borne diseases, most recently Zika.
One study estimated that absent any adaptation to climate change or disruption we will see an increase of 2,000 to 10,000 deaths annually in over 200 US cities. Worldwide, the WHO estimates 800,000 die prematurely each year from urban air pollution stemming from burning coal, oil and gasoline. Not surprisingly, those disproportionately paying the climate penalty are children, pregnant women, the elderly, the disabled, minorities and the poor. Half of those killed by Hurricane Katrina (responsible for almost half of hurricane related deaths over the past 50 years) were over 75 and black adult mortality was upwards of four times higher than for whites. Half of Hurricane Sandy deaths were of those over 65.
When President Trump announced the US would withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord, signed by 195 nations, the news was met with widespread criticism. The president’s own Secretary of State, and former Exxon CEO, Rex Tillerson, opposed the decision.
Ironically, on May 11, Tillerson signed the Fairbanks Declaration that stressed the importance of reversing Arctic warming that is twice the rate of the global average and has caused, in part, the disappearance of 40 percent of summer Arctic ice. Twenty-five major US companies including Apple, GE, Goldman Sachs, Google, IBM, Microsoft along with energy giants National Grid, Pacific Gas and Electric, Peabody Energy and Shell, made known their opposition to withdrawal in full page New York Times and Wall Street Journal ads.
A 2015 study by Citigroup estimated climate change would cost the US at least $44 trillion in lost GDP over the next five decades. Al Gore called the decision “reckless” and “indefensible.” Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org., not surprisingly called it an “incredibly stupid decision,” and wrote the decision undercuts civilization’s chances of survival. Tesla and Space X CEO, Elon Musk, and others, resigned from several presidential councils. Among American voters nearly 70 per cent, including a majority in all 50 states, support the Paris accord.
Because there has always been a clear link between climate, weather and health, one would think the professional medical community would have led the chorus of condemnation. It has not. If you search the American Medical Association’s website, the AMA has had nothing to say about the president withdrawing from the Paris accord. The American Hospital Association (AHA) and the Federation of American Hospitals (FAH) websites also make no mention of Trump’s decision. The same is true for the American College of Physicians (ACP), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Geriatric Society (AGS), the American Diabetes Association (ADA), the American Heart Association (AHA), the American Lung Association (ALA) as well as, for example, the American Association for People With Disabilities (AAPD), the National Association of Medicaid Directors (NAMD), the Association of Health Plans (AHIP), and numerous other related organizations. It’s worth noting as well, if these organizations received their health-related news entirely from health policy-dedicated media they would be unaware of the president’s decision. Inside Health Policy, for example, has not written a single related article in the week following the White House’s decision.
The non-response by the nation’s leading medical trade and professional associations is sadly not surprising. They were equally indifferent when the president on March 28 signed an Executive Order (EO) that the White House press shop stated, “stops Obama’s war on fossil fuels.” Among other things, the EO allows the EPA to “review” President Obama’s “Clean Power Plan” initiative aimed at reducing carbon pollution or greenhouse gasses from coal plants by 32 percent of 2005 levels by 2030. (Carbon dioxide from fossil fuel use accounts for nearly 60 percent of greenhouse gasses.) The EO lifts a 14-month moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands and it eliminates guidance that climate considerations be factored into environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The EO is particularly disturbing when you realize the fossil fuel industry already has five times more carbon resources in its reserves than most believe is safe to burn. Last April when the Obama administration released a 400-page report, that included 150 pages of references, on the “impacts of climate change on human health,” a report drafted over three years by scientists at the EPA, NASA, NOAA, DHHS, DoD, the USDA and others, again, the AMA, the AHA and others had nothing to say.
The organization that has been vocal in addressing climate change, the outlier, is the American Public Health Association (APHA). It’s Executive Director, Georges Benjamin, immediately condemned Trump’s June 1 decision stating it “has disastrous consequences for human health.” When the CDC abruptly canceled a three-day climate and health meeting this past winter, the APHA along with others, none of whom were medical associations, stepped up and sponsored an abbreviated, one-day meeting on February 16 at the Carter Center in Atlanta. Among other programming, the APHA has since 2010 produced a climate change webinar series. The APHA, along with 40, moreover non-medical, organizations, declared 2017 as “the year of climate change and health,” in an effort to increase climate change awareness and mobilize action to protect public health.
The APHA has also partnered with 10 other medical societies, including three named above, i.e., the AAP, ACP and AGA, to recently form the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health. The consortium, publicly launched three months ago, did issue a press release in response to the president’s June 1 decision. It stated tepidly withdrawing from the Paris accord is “the wrong choice that puts Americans at unnecessary risk.” (To it’s credit the ACP released last year a “climate change and health” position paper that stated, albeit halfheartedly, “physicians . . . are encouraged to advocate for climate change adaptation and mitigation policies and communicate about the health co-benefits of addressing climate change.”) The consortium pledges to advocate for energy efficiency and the transition to clean, renewable energy sources. Since the health sector is the largest energy consumer after the food industry, there is ample opportunity for the industry to go green. This is the mission of the Health Care Climate Council. One member, Kaiser Permanente, stated last year the organization will be carbon neutral by 2020 and has predicted by 2025 it will be carbon net positive. Another member, Gunderson Lutheran, has instead chosen to pursue a renewable energy strategy. Its largest alternative energy effort is a biomass boiler. However, burning biological materials for energy can emit as much or more pollutants as burning coal.
The US, after China, is the second largest greenhouse gas polluter, emitting over 6,600 million metric tons of green house gasses in 2015. Historically, the US is responsible for 27 percent of global CO2 emissions. We treat the atmosphere, the thin blue band that surrounds the planet, as an open sewer. That it appears we’ll continue to do so, and perhaps embolden others to do the same, is on balance not the concern of medical community. The greatest existential threat to our survival, our children and their children and the medical community is unwilling to raise its voice.
Today’s temperature in DC is 94 degrees, or 11 degrees above normal.