by Anna Baker
Dr. Jay Lemery, Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at University of Colorado School of Medicine and the department’s chief for wilderness and environmental medicine, is determined to involve the next generation of health leaders in the challenge to save the climate. The underpinnings of his climate leadership took hold over a decade ago, when, as a young physician fresh out of his residency, Lemery started up a wilderness and environmental medicine program at Weill Cornell. Primarily educational, the focus was on how to take care of people in remote places. Lemery had always had a deep appreciation for the outdoors, and the condition of our environment was one of his chief concerns. As he put the program together, he began to notice “a conspicuous absence of health professionals in the conversation about environmental degradation” which, he noted, “was clearly going to impact health.”
“Physicians in wilderness & environmental medicine have a dual mandate to take care of people and the environment. Because of this, they are uniquely qualified to speak to the issue.”
Physicians Weighed in on Nuclear Disarmament and Health, so Why Not Speak Up on Climate and Health?
In 2002, Lemery wrote an article entitled Lessons from Dr. Strangelove, geared toward a subset of physicians in the Wilderness Medical Society, where he called on them to embrace engaging on climate change as a human health issue. The Stanley Kubrick film reference alludes to the role doctors played in the 1980s in pressing for nuclear disarmament because of their concern about its impact on human health.
“The parallel I was trying to make is: the nuclear threat was scary, existential, and politicized, and no individual felt the power to do anything about it. And yet, here were a group of physicians that weighed in from the health side. And because of that, they were able to reach individuals and were part of that conversation right up to the end of the cold war. The efforts of physicians were recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize. Out of that emerged the organization Physicians for Social Responsibility.”
Today, educating people that climate change is a serious health issue is a one of Lemery’s primary goals. “You can’t solve a problem if half the people in the room don’t believe there’s a problem. So when I talk about this, I try not to get too deep into policy, but just say that we’re physicians, we know sickness, this is the same thing. And then, once we can agree on that, we can say ‘What’s our national policy for energy? And jobs creation? And the coal industry? And what are sensible ways to turn this around?’”
When asked to give his best advice to health professionals in terms of tying climate issues to their work, Lemery shared that he wants to remind anyone in health care that they wear a white coat, which automatically confers trust. “People generally give us the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “Remember that. You don’t need to be an expert, as much as you need to be an advocate.”
Making the Connection Between Climate, Health, and Human Rights
After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Lemery began working with the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health. It was around this time he noticed climate change was becoming politicized, which upset him because it was slowing down our willingness to urgently address the issue. “I’m not a policy expert, but I’m a physician, and what got my attention was when people started to bash the science as a part of the political process. I was thinking, ‘Look, we can go back and forth on policy and that’s fair, but let’s not bash the science.’“
This premise, in conjunction with his humanitarian work in Haiti, led him to recognize the parallels between climate change and social justice. He soon found himself writing an op-ed with the iconic Paul Farmer entitled The Great Procrastination, which was published in the Health and Human Rights Journal. Their essay highlighted the imperative for our current generation to avert the health effects of climate change. Allowing climate change to go unabated, they argued, would threaten human rights.
“We wonder, given the evidence underlying the mounting climate crisis, if future generations will regard ours—amongst the epochs of history—as ‘The Great Procrastination.’ Squandering time, dithering on action, and engaging in half-measures woefully incapable of addressing a threat that our best science warns will be more catastrophic and less reversible each year.”
A Clinically Relevant Book
Lemery has no shortage of astute and driven friends, and he’s motivated to tap into them. Through his colleague and long-time comrade, Dr. George Luber, Lemery secured partial funding from the Center for Disease Control to work on overlaps between climate and health. Luber had already begun writing a book on the subject when, over dinner one night, Lemery pressed Luber to make certain the book was clinically relevant. “It can’t just be another textbook,” Lemery said. “We’ve got to push home the clinical impact of this and how individuals are going to be suffering.” By the end of dinner, Lemery had sufficiently hammered home his point and Luber, in mild exasperation (Lemery jokes), suggested they co-edit the book together. The book, Global Climate Change and Human Health, published last fall, is a textbook intended for MD/DO and Master in Public Health students.
Seeding the Next Generation of Climate Advocates
A few years back, Lemery was sitting on a beach in Costa Rica when he read an essay that had a striking effect on him. Titled Physicians and the Environment, it was written by his friend and colleague Dr. Paul Auerbach, one of the grandfathers of wilderness medicine. The essay called for doctors to become advocates for a healthy and stable environment because of its intricate relationship with health. Auerbach’s comprehensive illustration of the issues put things into motion for him.
“We’ve got to teach a class on this,” he thought. As Auerbach had always been a wonderful mentor, Lemery decided to give him a call. It was this conversation that led them to write a book together, currently in progress.
Auerbach and Lemery are looking to augment their wilderness training by offering CMEs and courses by expert medical faculty. They will soon run a course in climate and health, which will be cross-credentialed, at the Colorado School of Public Health and the University of Colorado School of Medicine. They’re also actively working with colleagues across the country to figure out how to get the issue into K-12 curriculums and universities. “That’s our historical indictment,” Lemery says.
To read more about Lemery’s program in wilderness & environmental medicine, visit coloradowm.org.
Dr. Lemery was also a guest speaker at our recent climate communications webinar, Let's Talk Health & Climate. A recording of the webinar is available here.