Doctors add voices to fears climate change is posing health risks around the globe

Physician and health organizations are speaking out on the health impacts of climate change which could lead to disasters that “disrupt core public health infrastructure and overwhelm health services." (Getty/VladTeodor)

In the wake of a new study released Wednesday that warned of escalating health risks from climate change, a major physician group is backing the call for action.

Published in The Lancet medical journal, the report says that climate change is already posing health risks around the world from extreme weather events to the spread of infectious diseases. The report incorporates the work of 24 academic institutions and United Nations agencies.

It follows a major climate report issued over the Thanksgiving Day weekend that detailed climate and economic impacts in the U.S. if drastic action is not taken to address climate change. That report was met with denial by President Donald Trump who said he did not believe the assessment that unchecked global warming would wreak havoc on the U.S. economy.

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A physician group formed to address issues of climate change and its impact on health on Wednesday urged that the Lancet report be taken seriously.

“In less than one week we’ve seen two major reports that highlight many ways climate change is harming our health. The evidence is resounding,” said Mona Sarfaty, M.D., the director of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health, a coalition of 22 medical societies that represents more than half a million physicians in the country, in an emailed statement.

Sarfaty said the Lancet report makes clear that increases in heat, extreme weather and the spread of diseases carried by insects and water are harming human health. “We’ve long known that the scope of medicine extends outside the exam room, but this report calls on doctors to recognize that it extends to our climate,” she said.

Congress needs to act and introduce legislation to accelerate the transition to clean energy, improve energy efficiency and help communities respond to climate change, she said.

In light of last week’s government report, the American Public Health Association said the assessment was “a grave reminder” that action is needed to protect public health from climate change.

“The fourth edition of the report gathers in one place the undeniable body of science that shows public health is harmed right now by the advance of climate change. APHA strongly supports the key concerns and need for action expressed in the report,” said the group’s executive director Georges Benjamin, M.D., in a statement.

“Climate change is a threat to our survival and is the public health challenge of our lifetime,” Benjamin said.

Following release of The Lancet report, the Global Climate and Health Alliance, an international coalition of health and development organizations, called on world leaders to take the actions required to limit global warming to the targets set by the Paris climate change agreement, which President Trump withdrew from last year.

"The Lancet Countdown report provides a stark reminder of the consequences for people's health if we continue to procrastinate on climate change", said Jeni Miller, the group’s executive director, in a statement.

The Lancet report calls out the need to train America’s healthcare providers to recognize and respond to the health harms from climate change and talk about the risk to patients, Sarfaty said.

“What gives me hope in this report is the focus on the opportunity to save lives and improve health in the U.S. by transitioning to clean, renewable energy. As we reduce air pollution, our patients and our climate will get healthier,” she said.

She added she is heartened to see major medical systems and health organizations that have pledged to switch to clean energy sources. “I challenge all doctors and healthcare systems to do this too—to help their patients in both the short and long term,” she said.

Climate change is the “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century,” the Lancet report said. Climate change impacts include heatwaves, worsening storms and national disasters such as floods and fires that threaten to overwhelm health systems.

The Lancet report warned of the impact on the healthcare system. Failure to address climate change could lead to disasters that “disrupt core public health infrastructure and overwhelm health services,” it said.