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Science, Society, and Our Children's Future

By Miranda Spencer
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Richard Jackson, M.D., M.P.H., is a pediatrician and a professor of environmental health sciences and urban planning at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, as well as the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Environmental Health. A member of Climate for Health’s Leadership Circle, he has frequently written and spoken about our professional responsibility to see the big picture – both underlying causes and forward-looking solutions, especially as it pertains to our children's future under climate change.

Previous blog posts have featured his insights on these matters. In Healthy Community Design and Transportation (July 14, 2016), he answered questions following ecoAmerica’s four-part webinar Making the Connection: Climate Changes Health. In How Extreme Weather, Health, and Communities Connect (October 28, 2016), he talked about the importance of foresight in community planning; the value of social connections in recovery; and the importance of effective, two-way communication that includes people’s perspectives, addresses their needs, and allows them (where appropriate) to participate in solutions.

From Facts to Vision

Dr. Jackson’s most recent theme has been the responsibility of science and scientists to serve not just as purveyors but interpreters of facts, identifying and communicating the underlying causes of a problem – be it severe weather or human health conditions. In January, he spoke on this topic as part of a multidisciplinary panel at the American Meteorological Society’s 97th Annual Meeting in Seattle. He adapted his speech into an essay, “Meteorologists and the Sacred Position Between People and Science,” published in The Daily Climate recently.

In the essay, he describes an imaginary internist who sees an elderly, overweight patient with a sore on her foot that will not heal; the physician merely prescribes an ointment. However, this internist should have recognized and addressed the likelihood that the patient actually had a life-threatening systemic disorder such as vascular disease and/or diabetes. Dr. Jackson writes,

At the core of medical and public health training, we learn that you cannot just look narrowly at the problem in front of you…how did the patient get into this state and what are the challenges going forward? Failing to do so is malpractice….It is not enough for the doctor to know a lot of science. It is equally important that the person who is put between the scientific world and the human being must show true diligence.…

When it comes to the work of meteorologists, whom the public looks to for vital weather information, Dr. Jackson maintains,

The systemic disorder is climate heating as a result of climate-forcing gases….We need [meteorologists] to be technically proficient, but we also need big-picture thinkers who forecast, as the navy admirals do, way out beyond the bow.

To those who say it’s not weather experts’ job to report on longer-term and global threats such as climate, Dr. Jackson offers an analogy between the failure to notice and then communicate the connections between climate and public health to not noticing and reporting signs of child abuse or neglect in an injured patient:

When we fail to identify threats to our children and grandchildren, we are guilty of child neglect, and in some cases child abuse…When there is a grave threat, we need to speak with courage even when we don’t have absolute proof.

He concludes: “Will our grandchildren, and all grandchildren, berate us: 'You should have known we were in grave danger; why didn’t you act in time to protect us?'”

You can read the entire essay here.

A Voice for Children

Dr. Jackson’s reasoning is apparently shared by a leader in the legal field.  This past November, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aikin issued her opinion in Juliana v. U.S, a landmark 2015 federal climate lawsuit brought on behalf of America’s children. The 21 plaintiffs—aged 9 to 20, from all over the country and of many different backgrounds—allege that the U.S. government has violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property by actively supporting actions that cause climate change and failing to meaningfully address the problem. The defendants, who include the President of the United States and the fossil fuel industry, had filed a motion to dismiss the case.

In allowing the case to proceed to trial, Judge Aiken stated:

Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.

 Juliana v. U.S. is expected to go to trial in mid- to late 2017. To learn more, visit the website of Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit, nonpartisan youth-advocacy group leading the suit. And check out the bios of the young group of plaintiffs, which include statements in their own words about why they decided to use the Constitution as a tool to lead on climate. 

What You Can Do

What does Dr. Jackson's charge to “act in time to protect us” mean when it comes to making and communicating climate and health connections?

If you work in public health, or even in private practice, it might mean tracking and reporting individual or community health problems that seem to have a climate or extreme weather connection to your managers, government authorities, and/or collaborating with academic researchers. It can even include talking to young people – in the office or your own kids – about recognizing the climate-health connections. (If Juliana v. U.S. is any sign, many youths care about climate change and want to know that adults are also aware and doing something about it.)

We’ll address this issue further in next week’s blog, which will feature the work of professional societies, including the National Medical Association and the American Public Health Association, in collectively and systematically addressing climate change.

Miranda Spencer is a freelance writer and editor specializing in environmental issues. If you have comments, questions, ideas, or would like to submit a blog of your own, feel free to contact her at miranda@ecoamerica.org.