“A wind turbine a day keeps the doctor away.” It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it? Still, revising the age-old saying may warrant some consideration, seeing as apples seem powerless against man-made climate change, which recent research connects with serious health impacts.

A mounting body of evidence has been linking climate change to adverse public health effects, a relationship thrust into the spotlight by two major releases in The Lancet, one of the world's leading medical journals, and by the White House.

The findings of the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, released June 23 by the journal, show climate change threatens to undermine the major strides in human health made over the past 50 years. The study declares addressing the threats posed by climate change to be “the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.” A range of direct and indirect consequences of higher levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—air pollution, disease, famine, floods, droughts, heat waves, mental health effects, mass migration, severe weather and many more—present serious risks to health. The report found the largest barrier to a decarbonized global economy is now political will, and that the public health effects of climate action are underrepresented in climate discourse.

On July 16, The Lancet published another study on the public health threats posed by manmade greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers linked higher atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations with reduced levels of zinc in staple food crops. The levels of zinc under high CO2 scenarios were below the minimum that scientists have found necessary for human health. The study authors conclude that at least 138 million people will be at risk for zinc deficiency by 2050, which can cause diarrhea and pneumonia. The impacts will be most prevalent in developing countries, with 35 percent of the vulnerable population in India alone. “We have mortgaged the health of future generations to realize economic and development gains in the present,” the report summary states.

Back in June, the White House hosted a “Summit on Climate Change and Health,” underlining the public health risks posed by climate change as well as the pivotal role of the public health community in mitigating and educating on climate health risks. The meeting, which sought to elevate national dialogue on the subject, featured a video statement from President Obama along with remarks from Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, and Senior White House Advisor Brian Deese, among other officials. The White House outlined a series of executive plans to address the climate/health nexus, including a mapping tool to identify high-risk areas, an early-warning system for heat waves, a new climate change subcommittee within an existing environmental justice working group, an initiative to ensure health professionals are prepared to address climate change, and more. “The cost of inaction far outweighs the cost of action,” said President Obama.

Some Members of Congress have been drawing a link between health and climate change as well.

On June 4, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology convened for a hearing titled, “EPA Regulatory Overreach: Impacts on American Competitiveness,” largely a critique of the Agency’s Clean Power Plan, Clean Water Rule, and new standards for ozone emissions. The committee summoned four witnesses to provide testimony. Three supported the majority’s portrayal of EPA overregulation: representatives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Kerr Environmental Services Corp., and the National Association of Manufacturers. The minority could only call one witness to defend EPA’s regulatory agenda. So whom did they choose? A pediatrician.

Dr. Jerome A. Paulson, MD, Chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health Executive Committee, made a case before the House that “EPA’s regulatory work is critically important to protecting and improving the health of our nation’s children.” Representing the 64,000 pediatricians of AAP, Paulson presented an array of evidence to support his claim, including a study from the World Health Organization finding “over 80 percent of the current health burden from the changing climate is on children younger than five years old.” In his testimony, Paulson strove to quantify the health benefits of environmental regulation both in terms of human well-being and dollars saved.

The decision to place Paulson on the witness stand reflects recent events indicating that health is now taking center stage in the dialogue on climate and fossil fuel use. Climate change poses a plethora of threats to national security, the global economy, biodiversity, and more, but perhaps nowhere is the danger of unmitigated climate change more dynamic and tangible than in the context of human health. Will we preserve a healthy environment for ourselves, and for future generations? Many experts warn that without a stark turn away from business as usual, the answer is no.


Author: Billy Lee