Doctor perspective: Climate change is a health emergency

Climate change impacts, from more harmful pollution to wildfire injuries, are negatively influencing human life. But doctors can help, according to two physicians who wrote a perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The climbing impact of climate change on human health is something the medical world should pay attention to––and respond to by declaring the issue a health emergency, wrote Caren G. Solomon, MD, MPH, associate physician at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, and Regina C. LaRocque, MD, MPH, with Massachusetts General Hospital.

“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,” Solomon and LaRocque argued.

Physicians could be at the forefront in tackling some of the challenges of climate change, including taking a leadership role to achieve greenhouse gas emission-reduction targets. Specifically, physicians could influence lifestyle changes, such as encouraging walking or cycling instead of driving, or eating a more plant-oriented diet, that would make people healthier and cut down on emissions.

Physicians can also bring the health impacts of climate change closer to home by connecting the dots for patients and consumers between environmental degradation and “tangible problems,” including air pollution, insect-borne diseases and heatstroke. Other pandemics could be worsened, in part, by climate change.

The authors further pushed for physicians to become advocates for climate change solutions through legislative opportunities that focus on the health imperative of addressing the issue. By testifying in public hearings or meeting with legislators, medical professionals can make their voices heard on big issues. In medical schools, these advocacy skills are growing in importance, while many healthcare organizations already have their own government affairs departments.

The physicians went so far as to support Charles van der Horst, a North Carolina physician who was arrested for protesting after his state did not expand Medicaid. He maintained staying silent was not an option when patients were faced with a great danger.

On an institutional level, the U.S. healthcare system should look inward for its contributions to climate change. The healthcare sector accounts for about 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, the physicians stated.

“Healthcare professionals therefore have an ethical obligation to insist on a transformation of the way our hospitals and clinics operate,” Solomon and LaRocque wrote.

Some health systems have already stepped up to the plate to cut their emissions and produce their own energy, but a larger change is needed. Industry institutions, including the American Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners, passed resolutions for financial divestments from fossil fuel companies to further the health movement in climate change.

Above all, physicians should not be afraid to stand up to the forces of climate change in their role, keeping in mind their primary duty to alleviate harm.