Preventing the Health Impacts of Climate Change

Dr. Georges BenjaminDr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the country’s largest public health association and founding Climate for Health leader, speaks out on why health voices from across the nation are needed to get behind the Clean Power Plan and make a clear connection between climate change and our nation’s health.
 
Today is a historic day for the health and well-being of our nation. The White House announcement of the Clean Power Plan boldly tackles the harsh effects of climate change, providing stronger health protections than ever before.
 
I know first-hand the impact of climate change on public health. From treating a child’s asthma to a victim of heat stroke, as a former emergency physician, I’ve had to react quickly in the face of life-threatening medical problems. Much of my experience practicing emergency medicine was learning to respond effectively to the dangerous conditions that affected the health of my patients. Like many physicians, my clinical work consisted of addressing the significant needs of patients who had health conditions that were all-too-often preventable.
 
Unfortunately, physicians are seeing more patients come to their emergency departments and offices because of an emerging, preventable health threat: climate change. A new report published in the internationally renowned medical journal The Lancet reaffirms the Lancet Commission’s 2009 findings that climate change is the “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century,” but encouragingly makes the case that tackling climate change now is the greatest global health prevention opportunity of the 21st century.
 
Physicians dedicate their careers to saving lives and improving human health. As executive director of the American Public Health Association (APHA), I have an opportunity to work with others to help people live healthier lives; but we are not as healthy as we could be and as a nation, we have a way to go to be among the world’s healthiest places to live. APHA’s vision is to create the healthiest nation in one generation. To realize this vision, we have focused efforts on prevention and preparing communities for the broad health risks they face — which more than ever, includes climate change.
 
Through the Clean Power Plan, carbon pollution from power plants will be reduced by 32 percent by 2030, ensuring cleaner air and a healthier environment. I applaud the White House for taking the strong steps forward that we need to make to become a healthier nation.
 
Our 50,000 individual and organizational members are concerned about the increasing number of people whose health is being compromised by air pollution, heat waves, catastrophic storms, emerging infectious diseases, and chronic health conditions that are exacerbated by our changing climate.
 
Because of the scale and frequency of these issues, physicians and public health professionals like myself are stepping forward to seek new solutions.
 
APHA has been a leader on educating the public health community about the clear connection between climate change and health. The Lancet report validates our concerns, but if we take concrete steps to address climate change now — like the Clean Power Plan’s historic actions — we can prevent further climate change, save more lives and stop preventable health emergencies from occurring.
 
The report also encourages developing countries to strengthen their health infrastructure against the challenges to come, but that message rings true even in the United States. Though we often assume that we have a very resilient health system, disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy prove that our system is inadequately prepared, leaving Americans vulnerable to extreme weather events. However, when we invest in prevention and preparedness, we see tremendous benefits in return. This includes keeping our friends, families and patients out of harm’s way.
 
That’s why we stepped forward to serve as a founding partner of Climate for Health, a new national network of health leaders from many concerned organizations who have the research and tools to do something about climate change. In addition to promoting habits like daily exercise and eating local and fresh food, health leaders are learning and communicating about the corresponding health benefits to communities from making their neighborhoods more walkable, bikeable and climate-friendly. Building in basic improvements — like bike shares and green spaces — in the places where we live, work, learn, pray, and play can make our communities more livable. It would also ensure that we have the clean air and natural resources needed for more of us to live longer and healthier lives.
 
When health professionals personally reach out to patients and communities to talk about the connection between climate and health, we will secure a brighter and healthier future for all. And that’s the kind of prevention everyone can get behind.
 
This article was published in The Hill on August 4, 2015

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