It’s Time to Wake Up to Threat of Climate Change, and to Act

By Sarah Schear, MS

As pediatricians and trainees, we have all experienced moral awakenings that have compelled us to take action to protect children. 

As I step outside each day in San Francisco during the pandemic, putting on my mask reminds me of a time of moral awakening: the fall of 2018, when the Camp Fire raged through Paradise, California. I remember the sharp smell of smoke seeping through my apartment windows in San Francisco and wearing an N95 mask as I walked through haze to and from the labor and delivery unit for my OB-GYN rotation. 

It felt so wrong to me that the babies born in that unit would soon breathe such air. And now, wildfires rage again in the West, darkening the skies and threatening our respiratory health. 

Back in 2018, I had only started to grasp the link between climate change and the worsening wildfires in California. Earlier that year, monsoon flooding displaced a million people in the state of Kerala, India, where I had done research in a community-based palliative care organization. The gut punch of considering the patients with serious illness I had met and the care teams I had interviewed being displaced from their homes and workplaces was too much. I finally sat down and read about climate change.

“With so much at stake for child health and equity, climate change demands a moral awakening in us as pediatricians and trainees.”

The justice implications of what I read pierced me: Of all nations, the United States has emitted the most planet-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — predominantly driven by the wealthiest Americans — while island nations and largely Black and brown communities around the world and in our own country bear the worst health impacts, from heat waves and air pollution, to (un)natural disasters and changing patterns of infectious disease.

As I read, I realized that the many issues I already cared deeply about as a medical student — from human rights and child health, to building more just and compassionate care systems for marginalized patients — were irrevocably linked to climate change.

The Lancet Countdown, an annual tracker of the health implications and solutions to climate change, reported in 2019 that “the life of every child born today will be profoundly affected by climate change. Without accelerated intervention, this new era will come to define the health of people at every stage of their lives.”

With so much at stake for child health and equity, climate change demands a moral awakening in us as pediatricians and trainees. Thankfully, we have a special role to play, since many of our own teen and young adult patients are leading the movement.

Youth across the United States and globally are spearheading activism to tackle climate change in an intersectional manner that focuses on racial and economic justice. Pediatricians have a uniquely powerful voice to lend to their movement, as guardians of children’s health and spokespeople for how social and structural problems manifest in poor child health. 

Indeed, the AAP has issued a policy statement reviewing the serious implications of climate change for child health and offers resources for members who want to speak out. 

What’s more, our presence as health professionals in solidarity with youth climate activists is also meaningful to them. During a youth-led rally in San Francisco last fall, an acquaintance approached me and said: “Seeing the doctors here makes me feel safer. It gives me hope.”

We still have time to make a difference, if we act swiftly. According to the global scientific consensus of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the coming decade is our critical window to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, which are expected to persist for many generations. The policies and technologies needed to address climate change are becoming broadly available and increasingly understood. We just have to fight for them.

Physicians are among the most publicly trusted professionals, and our voices truly can make a difference on climate change. We can write op-eds to explain how ambitious climate policy is vital to providing safe health care, achieving racial justice, and protecting the health of children. We can connect with local youth and environmental organizations and lend a medical voice to their advocacy by giving public comment at local hearings on issues from air quality to the importance of green, energy-efficient buildings.  

And in our own health systems, which account for nearly 8% of U.S. emissions, we can identify and cut pollutants, including by sourcing more plant-based foods and minimizing waste.

In this critical election season, when the candidates we elect hold the future of our climate in their hands, we can show up to town halls and ask the vital questions from the AAP’s 2020 Vote Kids campaign. And in our care of patients, we can use resources like The Voice Project and Vote Kids to incorporate a question on civic engagement into our adolescent visits and to help our eligible patients register to vote.

We can start small by talking more with our families, friends, and colleagues about climate change. Most Americans care about climate change, but few hear it discussed regularly. Talking is foundational to movement building. Through sharing openly, we can help each other and our patients channel fears into meaningful action.

I used to feel helpless when I thought about climate change, but now I see the faces of the youth climate activists I’ve marched beside. I hear the words of my colleagues advocating to our leaders and the public. I feel courage, rooted in the youth-led movement that is building for a just and healthy climate future — a movement in which there is a role and need for each of us.

Sarah Schear, MS, is a medical student at the University of California, San Francisco. She is co-chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics, California Chapter 1 Task Force on Climate Change and Health.

This blog is part of a series from pediatricians we will feature throughout October, Children’s Health Month. It was originally posted on the AAP Voices blog.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is a partner of Climate for Health, a coalition of health leaders committed to caring for our climate to care for our health.  Founded by ecoAmerica, Climate for Health offers tools, resources, and communications to demonstrate visible climate leadership, inspiring and empowering health leaders to speak about, act on and advocate for climate solutions. Learn more about our partnership and the resources available to you here.

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