A global health crisis hiding in plain sight

A young girl is brought to the emergency room with a large, red, angry-looking gash in her lower leg. She sustained the injury in knee-high water while her home flooded during an intense storm. In the ICU, a previously healthy adolescent fights to stay alive, having suffered a heat stroke while playing football on a blazing hot day. Countless children remain hospitalized for days due to asthma exacerbations, barely able to breathe on their own.

At first glance, these three medical problems appear starkly different. However, there is an underlying public health crisis that pervades each scenario: human-driven climate change. There is no doubt among scientists that humans are causing global warming and propagating a myriad of downstream planetary effects, the collection of which is typically dubbed “climate change.” These downstream effects, in turn, cause and worsen a wide array of human health problems.

A digital image showing the planet Earth being held above a pair of human handsTake extreme heat waves, for example. They already kill more people per year in the U.S. than any other natural disaster, yet they will continue to worsen. Natural disasters and storms are increasing in both frequency and severity, killing thousands and leaving even more homeless or displaced. As temperatures rise and disease-carrying mosquitoes expand their ranges, they spread illnesses like Dengue, malaria, and Zika. Air pollution is strongly associated with increased rates of asthma and worsened lung function. These are just a few of the ways that climate change threatens our well-being.

As a pediatrician, I bear witness to the fact that children are more affected by the natural environment than adults. With a larger body-surface-to-mass ratio, children experience more difficulty in adapting to extreme heat. Children also inhale more harmful particulate matter than adults because they breathe air that is closer to the ground. When children experience a traumatic natural disaster, their cognitive development and psychological well-being can be severely disrupted. I cannot help but feel frustrated; these children do not have the means to reverse global warming, yet they suffer the most from its effects.

The many health impacts of climate change are starting to reach the forefront of modern medicine. In 2019, the American Medical Association issued a policy statement supporting climate change as a component of medical education. In early 2021, more than 25 national health organizations came together to declare climate change “a health emergency” and called for urgent action from policymakers, healthcare systems, and community leaders. Later that year, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared climate change “the single biggest threat facing humanity.”

However, unlike many other global health emergencies, there is no singular cure or vaccine that can stop global warming. This is an inconvenient reality for most of us; without the possibility of a cure being “discovered by scientists,” we must call on each other to take ownership of this problem and work together to find solutions. The first step is to reduce our individual carbon footprints. By making a few small lifestyle changes—like composting, eating less red meat, using a water filter instead of plastic bottles and bringing reusable bags to the grocery store—we can minimize our personal contributions to this global crisis. In doing so, we would create a society that upholds sustainability as the gold standard.

Admittedly, such small personal efforts are likely insufficient to reverse climate change on their own; we need large businesses and industrial sectors to dramatically reduce their carbon footprints. As consumers and investors, we have the power to accelerate this process by supporting businesses that are actively striving to increase sustainability and decrease their carbon footprints. My own field of work, healthcare, is responsible for a massive share of carbon emissions. Some hospitals and health systems have already improved sustainability to deliver climate-conscious care to patients, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

Finally, we need lawmakers and representatives to invest in cleaner energy, transportation and infrastructure. We must rapidly transform the way our nation produces and consumes resources if we want our future generations to live in a healthy, safe environment. Together, our nation can produce rapid change on an immense scale; we accomplished this after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, in an unprecedented “Arsenal of Democracy.” We need to replicate this rapid transformation once again. We need to unify behind a common goal: finding climate solutions. This must happen now. Our health, and the health of our children’s generations, depend on it.

-Mark McShane, M.D., Pediatric Resident, PGY-3, Baylor College of Medicine / Texas Children’s Hospital

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