This week's guest authors are Phil Polakoff M.D., a consulting professor at Stanford University School of Medicine and executive producer/host of A HEALTHIER ME,™ a digital show designed to educate the public on a wide variety of topics in health and healthcare, and Bob Perkowitz, president and founder of ecoAmerica. This essay originally appeared at Thrive Global.
Good health depends on several factors. Sufficient sleep, healthy eating, and active living are no longer the only necessities for ensuring wellness. There’s something more — according to the American Public Health Association, “Social, environmental, and individual factors influence our health and our ability to make healthy choices. Health care is only a small contributor to our health and wellness.”
The climate and health assessment by the U.S. Global Change Research Program released earlier this month makes it clear that climate change poses a risk to human health and welfare. In fact, climate change stands right alongside tobacco, cancer, and obesity as one of the major public health issue of our time. Established medical groups such as the American Lung Association urge physicians to remind policymakers that clean air saves lives and money.
The tangible realities of climate change pollution are widespread. Millions of Americans suffer from allergies. Poor air quality increases rates of childhood asthma and respiratory illnesses, and rises in temperatures fuel cases of Lyme disease and West Nile Virus. The upsurge in mosquito-borne diseases from climate change is also noteworthy — the Zika epidemic is a recent example of this.
In addition to their physical trauma, climate effects [impact] mental health. Beyond Storms & Droughts, a joint report by the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica, overviews the host of psychological impacts. Climate risks and weather disasters put people at high risk of pre-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression. The report discusses why some communities will be hit harder than others, and how psychological tolls interact with physical health.
Collectively, climate change could be the most expensive challenge facing America’s heath care system. According to 2015 research from Citigroup, the all-inclusive cost of not acting on climate change adds up to $44 trillion. Air pollution caused by energy production in the U.S. caused at least $131 billion in damages in 2011 alone, a new analysis concludes.
A 2015 report by the World Bank, “Shock Waves: Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty,” reveals that climate change could place more than 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030. Since being poor increases a person’s chance of being malnourished, getting sick from exposure to harmful conditions, and having inadequate access to health care, efforts to address climate change reduce poverty and advance public health simultaneously.
Here’s the good news. Given the broad swath of its impacts, addressing climate change presents us with one of the greatest opportunities of our time to improve public health. Limiting carbon dioxide emissions is an honest and achievable goal that will save millions of lives. A new study by the World Health Organization indicates that 23 percent of deaths that occur globally each year, affecting nearly 12.6 million people, are caused by environmental contributions from pollution and are preventable. As Benjamin Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Now is our chance. The success of last year’s Paris climate summit offered evidence that a large majority of the world’s countries are on board with climate solutions. When given a choice, doctors and nurses advocate for preventing disease before it begins. Mental health professionals say that people feel their anxiety diminish once they start taking real steps to respond to the crisis. If the climate continues to change, existing health threats will be exacerbated and new public health challenges will develop. We know better than to let this happen.
Here’s what you can do. Read the recent White House assessment, “The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States.” Support the American Public Health Association and state and local public health agencies working to address climate change. And, if your health is truly a priority, take personal action to reduce air pollution while engaging your families and friends. There’s no doubt about it: When we work toward stemming climate change, we protect the wellbeing and lives of people everywhere.
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