Landscape of dry and cracked land

Climate Change is Harming Health and the Treatment is Medicine, Law, and Bioethics

By Renee N. Salas

The flurry of media around recent climate change reports may have left your head spinning. These were all released in anticipation of the United Nation’s 24th Convention of the Party (COP24), in follow-up to the Paris Agreement, where the actual nuts and bolts of achieving this historic public health commitment was to be ironed out.

There are two key messages from these reports for the United States. First, climate change is human caused, happening today, and is worse than predicted. Second, climate change is harming the health of Americans now.

As an emergency medicine doctor, telling a patient a diagnosis is something I do frequently. Thus, if America were my patient, I would say that while the health diagnosis of climate change is grave, there is reason to be optimistic — because treatment exists. That treatment is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and switching from fossil fuels to solar and wind.

To achieve this treatment in our current political environment, we need historic teamwork that involves every discipline. This includes medicine, law, and bioethics joining together in novel collaborations that work to improve health and save lives.

Climate Change is Harming the Health of Americans Today

Above all else, climate change is a public health issue. In fact, the ways in which climate change is negatively impacting health is frighteningly broad, with more alarming insights constantly being discovered.

Two recent reports, the global 2018 Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change and its companion U.S. focused Brief, highlight that climate change is causing more Americans to be harmed by heat, extreme weather, and mosquito and tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease.

Climate change disproportionately harms the health of the most vulnerable like children, the elderly, those with chronic medical issues, and the poor. However, no one is left untouched. Globally, this resonates as an ethical and moral quandary because those that contributed the least to the problem are impacted the most.


Climate Change Reality

Yet this stark health reality comes at a time when U.S. leadership is actively working to dismiss climate change, not reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and in fact is promoting the use of fossil fuels.

The four hottest years have been the past four. Our planet is already 1°C warmer than in the pre-industrial period. A recent report revealed that fossil fuels emissions are continuing to climb — all at a point when a new report emphatically declares that we must cut emissions in half by 2030 to have any hope of keeping the planet below 1.5°C. We are currently on track to possibly reach 4.4°C of warming by 2100.

Since the ramifications of this are almost unthinkable, we must act now.


Novel Collaborations Between Medicine, Law, and Bioethics

This is why we need unprecedented collaboration to tackle this issue. The medical community is one of the most trusted messengers to discuss the health implications of climate change. As the health professional voice is unified and amplified, this is creating a grassroots movement.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has more ongoing climate legislation than anywhere else in the world. The recent victory in the Netherlands serves as a beacon of hope. This case is now forcing the government into more aggressive reduction of greenhouse gases than planned. However, the health impacts need to play an increasing role in these cases.

In addition, the bioethical implications around climate change are clear: While some say that bioethics alone can’t drive a movement, once the gears start turning, the ethical perspective can exponentially bolster the momentum.

The solutions required exist at the intersections of these disciplines. Just as patients need a team to save lives, the health of Americans needs these historic silos to tumble down so collaboration can occur.

Bottom Line

If our own health doesn’t get us to act, I don’t know what will. And if we don’t do it for ourselves, lets do it for the health of the children in our lives. Their muted voices are screaming at us to act — and act together. Join me.


Renee N. Salas is Affiliated Faculty and a Burke Fellow at the Harvard Global Health Institute, a Clinical Instructor of Emergency Medicine at Harvard Medical School and in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

This post is part of the Seventh Annual Health Law Year in P/Review Symposium, a digital conversation reflecting on 2018’s biggest topics in health law policy and discussing the upcoming issues of 2019.

Image via The Lancet Countdown 

The Petrie-Flom Center Staff

The Petrie-Flom Center staff often posts updates, announcements, and guests posts on behalf of others.

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