Fire burn deaths. Smoky air. Floods. Drought. There is no escaping the reality that global warming is rapidly aggravating threats to human health and communities in the United States and around the world. As the top scientists have told us over and over again, we must immediately reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change. Governments and companies are particularly unsafe, but citizens too – we are all together here.
That includes you, doctors.
In a New England Journal of Medicine comments published Wednesday, a few doctors in Boston claim that it is high time that medical professionals are more directly involved in the fight to limit climate change. Chief author Caren Solomon, a doctor at Brigham and Women & # 39; s Hospital, tells Vox that she was forced to write the piece because the urgency of the climate crisis has become clearer and clearer.
"We come to a point where people have to act immediately to try to prevent the most catastrophic consequences, and doctors have a special responsibility to do something," she said. "And it will only get worse unless we take action now."
A separate review article on the health consequences of climate change, also published in NEJM this week, indicates what is at stake for human health. Between 2030 and 2050, a quarter of a million deaths could be caused by health problems related to climate change, such as exposure to heat, mosquito-borne diseases and floods. Air pollution, including household air pollution, already causes 6.5 million premature deaths per year.
But that is not all: it turns out that saving lives is part of the problem. In the US alone, health care accounts for almost a tenth of greenhouse gas emissions. Lifesaving equipment such as CAT scanners, respirators and dialysis machines have enormous energy requirements, currently with fossil fuel energy. If American health care were a country, according to Solomon and her co-author Regina LaRocque, it would have $ 3.3 trillion and the seventh place in the world in total emissions. Hospitals also produce about one pound of hazardous medical waste per bed per day.
But now it is clear that the health sector has a huge chance to stop contributing so much to the greenhouse effect and become a much larger player in the transition to clean energy. As LaRocque and Solomon point out, there are already enough great examples of what doctors, hospitals and health care institutions can do. Let's walk through it.
Hospitals can commit to 100 percent clean energy or carbon neutrality
Hospitals should take the lead of places like Kaiser Permanente, Partners HealthCare and Boston Medical Center – they all work on reducing their emissions and achieving carbon neutrality, write Solomon and LaRocque.
Gundersen Health Systems, a non-profit hospital operating in the Midwest, has already achieved that achievement. They started working on carbon neutrality in 2008 – and in 2014 it became the first American health system that achieved "energy independence", produced more energy than they consumed by wind and solar energy and methane from landfills.
Attorney Aurora Health, the 10th largest non-profit health care system in the US, is also working to strengthen its health care facilities with 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. They will probably do so by using "a combination of on-site". , off-site and purchased renewable electricity, "according to Health Care Without Harm, an organization that works with Advocate Aurora and other healthcare institutions around the world to commit to the transition to 100 percent renewable electricity.
Doctors can inform policymakers and the public about the consequences of climate change for health
Doctors have a privileged position in society as trusted health authorities. "We can motivate people to act by clarifying the links between environmental degradation and tangible problems, such as air pollution, insect-borne diseases and heat stroke," Solomon and LaRocque write. Doctors can also help the public understand the benefits of switching to greener energy sources.
And there are already a lot of resources for doctors to both inform and carry out advocacy work. The American College of Physicians has a toolkit for climate change, which offers suggestions to send physicians to reduce the emissions of their practices. Also consider advocacy groups such as Healthcare Without Harm, the Medical Society Consortium and Physicians for Social Responsibility, who advise on legislative actions.
Heath care can repel companies that produce fossil fuels
Healthcare companies with large investment portfolios sometimes hold shares in polluting sectors, such as petroleum products, coal and natural gas. But several hospital systems, including San Francisco's Dignity Health, and doctor's groups such as the Canadian Medical Association, are now joining the lively divestment movement: they sell their shares in these companies so that they can reduce their financial dependence on them.
"[H]healthcare institutions, medical schools and individual doctors … can tailor their financial power to their mission to protect health by disposing of their pension portfolios and donations from the fossil fuel industry, "Solomon and LaRocque write.
Doctors need to prepare to raise the threats to environmental health related to climate change
Yuba and Butte County sheriff deputies carry a body bag with a dead victim of the campfire, the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history. Prolonged drought and heat helped to ripen the region for inflammation. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
As the climate changes, the health risks also increase. Warmer temperatures make new areas hospitable to insects such as ticks and mosquitoes. Lyme disease now appears in Canada and a locally acquired case of mosquito-borne chikungunya first appeared in 2016 in Texas.
Higher temperatures also increase the frequency and intensity of heat waves. Heat waves from last year have killed people around the world, including Canada, Japan and the US.
Rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere also increase the pollen production of plants such as ragweed, and allergy seasons in the United States are getting worse every year.
This means that doctors, nurses and public health officials around the world will have to anticipate and deal with new diseases and developing dangers in their field. These health risks only increase as the average temperature rises.
So while the medical profession catches up with the current risks, it will also have to adapt to a future in a changing climate. This requires reducing the impact of medicines on the environment, but also encouraging the changes that we can not avoid.
"As far as our mission is to protect health and alleviate human suffering, we have a situation here that leads to devastating consequences," Solomon told Vox. "We all know that preventing something is a more effective approach than waiting for a complete illness, which applies to this situation."