Climate change is not just an environmental, economic, or political issue.
It’s also a major health concern, both public and private.
After two and a half years of study, the American College of Physicians (ACP) has issued a policy paper calling for aggressive global action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
The group is urging its members to raise their voices and take action to help combat climate change.
The recommendations are being published Tuesday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
The report points to many of the potential health effects of climate change.
The effects include higher rates of respiratory and heat-related illnesses, increased prevalence of diseases passed by insects, water-borne diseases, food and water insecurity, malnutrition, and behavioral health problems.
The Most Vulnerable
The study authors say the people most vulnerable to climate change are society’s oldest, sickest, and poorest.
For example, studies conducted by members of the Wasatch Front community in Utah found a distinct link between air pollution and cardiovascular problems in patients.
For every increase in ﬁne particulate matter level, the likelihood of myocardial infarction and unstable angina increased by 4.5 percent.
According to Dr. Wayne J. Riley, M.P.H, M.B.A, M.A.C.P, and president of the ACP, the problem is an international one, since greenhouse gases do not respect political boundaries.
“I just came back from India and saw the problem with my own eyes,” Riley told Healthline. “There’s an ozone layer over Mumbai.”
A Call to Action
ACP is the largest medical specialty organization and the second largest physician group in the United States, with 143,000 members.
It is calling for action from within its organizations as well from society at large.
“We need to raise awareness in the health sector, which is second only to the food industry in energy use,” Riley said.
That comes out to about $9 billion spent annually on energy costs.
“As an industry we need to reduce greenhouse gases, do more recycling, and educate patients about the deleterious effects on respiratory and other systems,” he said.
Riley also cited the specifics. “It’s bad for asthma. COPD will be worse, and so will allergies because there’ll be more mold and a higher pollen count. Tick-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease, will affect more people. There’ll be more Zika virus and West Nile virus because mosquitoes like warm climates.
“We’re the physicians who will have to take care of these patients,” he noted.
More Groups Joining Cause
The ACP joins a growing chorus of scientiﬁc organizations that have raised concerns about climate change.
These groups include the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the American Chemical Society (ACS), and the American Meteorological Society (AMS).
Other medical societies, notably the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Medical Association (AMA), have also expressed concern about climate change and called for aggressive action.
Religious leaders, including Pope Francis and members of the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium, have called addressing climate change a moral issue.
For the past seven years, the Jewish Climate Change Campaign has called for action “to mobilize the wisdom of Judaism to meet the challenges of climate change,” according to its website.
The ACP paper is likely to be supported by organizations whose members have been confronting the results of climate change for years.
Dan Flanagan, executive director of Friends of the Urban Forest and chair of the San Francisco Urban Forestry Council, told Healthline, “The environmental services provided by trees are closely linked with human health benefits. For example, by filtering particulate matter from the air, trees help us breathe. But perhaps the biggest contribution trees make to environmental and human health is to mitigate global warming.”
He went on to say, “Trees absorb carbon dioxide, produce oxygen, and store carbon, which makes them our most efficient and cost-effective tool for fighting climate change and the threat it poses to our mental and physical health.”
Five Recommendations for Physicians
The ACP wants its members to go well beyond planting more trees.
In the first of five recommendations, it calls for a global effort to reduce greenhouse emissions and address the health impact of climate change, with the U.S. taking a lead role.
The second recommendation zeroes in on the healthcare sector, advising practitioners to implement environmentally sustainable and energy efﬁcient practices.
“Office-based physicians and their staffs can also play a role by taking action to achieve energy and water efficiency, using renewable energy, expanding recycling programs, and using low-carbon or zero carbon transportation,” Riley said in a press release.
The third tenet urges physicians to advocate for climate change adaptation and mitigation policies, as well as to communicate about the health benefits of their actions.
In addition, they are encouraged to become educated about climate change and its effects on human health. To this end, the organization urges medical schools to incorporate these lessons into its curricula.
Finally, the document looks beyond medicine to require governments to commit to providing substantial research funding to mitigate the human health effects of climate change.