Enough Hiding: It's Time We See the Faces of Climate Change
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the significant and lethal danger of ignoring expert advice when facing a public health crisis. But even as this months-long disaster unfolds, there's another public health crisis playing out across the global stage, where experts are sidelined in favor of conspiracy theorists, and we all suffer because of it.
Doctors have long warned that climate change would harm public health. Unfortunately, too many have ignored their warnings. Now, we are seeing a growing nexus between climate and health impacts, just as the experts have warned.
"The House Oversight and Reform Committee's hearing, 'The Devastating Health Impacts of Climate Change' on August 5, 2020, is an example of the growing recognition of climate change as a public health crisis."
The House Oversight and Reform Committee's hearing, "The Devastating Health Impacts of Climate Change" on August 5, 2020, is an example of the growing recognition of climate change as a public health crisis. During the hearing, the Committee heard from an economist (Dr. Michael Greenstone), an environmental expert (Dr. Drew Shindell), a pulmonologist (Dr. Neeta Thakur), and an ER doctor (Dr. Renee Salas) whose testimony reflected their distinct perspectives, but shared a common theme: climate change is hurting the health of Americans. And, like COVID-19, it's a public health emergency that we can't afford to ignore.
Both Dr. Greenstone and Dr. Shindell testified about new research they've published showing that climate change is already making millions of people sick, and its harms to public health will be very costly if left unchecked.
"Dr. Greenstone summed up his recent research findings by saying that if carbon pollution continues unabated, 'the temperature effects of climate change are projected to be five times deadlier than recent U.S. flu seasons.'"
Dr. Greenstone summed up his recent research findings by saying that if carbon pollution continues unabated, "the temperature effects of climate change are projected to be five times deadlier than recent U.S. flu seasons." Across the planet, the increasing temperatures will potentially surpass the threat that cancer and heart disease pose, particularly in underdeveloped countries.
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Dr. Thakur spoke to the committee about how the air pollution that is both furthering climate change and damaging public health in the long run, is harming our lungs first in the short term. Her testimony was particularly of interest given the mounting evidence showing that exposure to air pollution increases the risk of dying from COVID-19; is a key social determinant of health; and is one of the reasons that Black, Latino, and other BIPOC communities in the U.S. are dying from COVID-19 at much higher rates.
"...mounting evidence showing that exposure to air pollution increases the risk of dying from COVID-19..."
Dr. Renee Salas, an ER doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital and a leading researcher on climate and health, talked about how she has seen an increase in the number of patients she treats with health issues linked to climate change. She thinks of these patients as the new faces of the climate crisis.
For example, she told the Committee about a construction worker that came into the ER with heat stroke that led to organ failure. His face serves as her haunting reminder that no one is invincible.
"Dr. Renee Salas, an ER doctor at MGH and a leading researcher on climate and health, talked about how she has seen an increase in the number of patients she treats with health issues linked to climate change."
She recalled the face of another heat-stricken patient, an elderly man who lived in an apartment without air conditioning whose core temperature had reached 106°F -- an example of how climate change harms the health of the most vulnerable first and hardest.
In her concluding remarks, Dr. Salas aptly described how the world's understanding of climate change is evolving, noting that climate change is simultaneously a "meta problem" underlying other problems, and a "threat multiplier" that makes existing problems worse. She further explained that "this means that climate change touches everything and is creating headwinds to successfully tackling our nation's most pressing challenges of today, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the health inequities that result from structural racism.
"...climate change is simultaneously a 'meta problem' underlying other problems, and a 'thread multiplier' that makes existing problems worse"
While many are content to ignore the painful realities of a public health crisis, doctors have no choice but to see their patients' faces, look them in the eyes, and do everything in their power to heal them.
The rest of us would be wise to follow suit.