This September, nearly 200 concerned and committed physicians, nurses, and healthcare and public health professionals from across the country came together in Washington D.C. for an intensive two-day, action-oriented Climate Health Summit. Participants engaged with many of the nation’s leading climate and health experts to learn more about the health harms of climate change and how reducing the burning of fossil fuels will provide significant co-benefits to health. With the help of communication experts, participants also learned and practiced new skills in how to effectively talk about climate change and health and be more effective messengers and advocates for climate solutions.
Beyond the latest research and data findings on the increasing threats to health posed by climate change, many experts spoke from personal experience. Dr. Rosalyn Baker, a Virginia allergist, spoke of epidemic asthma and the contribution of climate change to rising pollen counts, mold from flooding and humidity, and ozone levels exacerbating disease, all of which have impacted her patients. Dr. Lynn Ringenberg, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, spoke on infectious diseases that will increase with climate change and which are especially concerning for her patient population: children. Dr. Susan Clayton provided an overview of the often overlooked psychologic impacts of climate disruption and extreme weather events, and Dr. Lise Van Susteren spoke of climate fatigue experienced by health advocates themselves who are on the front lines of seeing the impacts and pushing for solutions.
Beyond individual health, the broad public is being impacted as extreme weather damages our hospitals and infrastructure. Drought – and the opposite, unprecedented heavy rain and flooding – is already imperiling our water sources, our food supply, and our cities and towns. Dr. Linda Rudolph opened the plenary with a plea to include those most vulnerable and most impacted in developing our solutions. Those who are at gravest risk, in underserved areas, people of color, and those with lower incomes will increasingly confront paying more for services or going without in a world where climate change further destabilizes already compromised health.
The Summit also made clear how burning fossil fuels is bad for our health and how reducing the burning of coal, natural gas, and the fuel in combustion engines and switching to clean energy could immediately improve public health. This profound statement was one of four important conclusions of the 2015 Lancet Commission report, “Health and Climate Change: Policy Responses to Protect Public Health.” Climate solutions for electricity production, transportation, healthy diets, and food production will pollute far less than our current approaches. The changes, though logical, are challenged by the entrenched and highly lucrative corporations that continue to promote dirty energy and agribusiness.
So what must we do? The Climate Health Summit built the capacity of 200 health professionals to not only be educated, but to actually take action in their communities in support of healthy policy. The policy plenary gave a broad overview of important actions that will promote policies to implement efficiency and renewable alternatives. Rachel Cleetus, PhD raised the possibility of carbon pricing systems to bring the social cost of burning fossil fuels to its source and use the market to make wind and solar more profitable. Rona Birnbaum of the Environmental Protection Agency provided an overview of the Clean Power Plan, the first national action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electricity production.
Many of the co-sponsors are actively working at the federal and state levels to implement the Clean Power Plan and are excited to have more health professionals equipped to bring credible, real-time stories of climate health impacts to their legislators, governors, and utility commissions and point out the importance of implementing healthy energy choices. Communications experts from George Mason University, ecoAmerica/Climate for Health and Climate Nexus, along with expert policy advocates at American Lung Association, PSR, and others provided research-based guidance and tips to help health professionals leverage their professional credibility and influence to deliver effective messages.
The second day of the Summit provided an opportunity to put the first day’s learning and practice into direct action. PSR and its colleagues led over 80 health professionals to Capitol Hill to meet with legislative offices, personally share their knowledge about how climate is impacting health now, and express why the Clean Air Act and the Clean Power Plan are critical to protecting public health now and in the future. More health professionals are needed to step forward to learn and take action as trusted and powerful voices for climate solutions. If you or a health colleague are interested in learning more about climate health impacts and the role you can play as part of a growing force of health experts helping to move the country toward climate solutions, or would like to bring this type of training and learning to your workplace or organization, please contact PSR and join us and our fellow organizations working in support of a healthier future.
Become part of our force to move climate policy!
Dr. Catherine Thomasson is Executive Director of PSR and a founding member of the Climate for Health program, a network of health professionals representing key public health and health care institutions and organizations committed to leading by example and engaging others on a path to a positive future.
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