U.S. Medical Groups Warn Candidates: Climate Change Is a ‘Health Emergency’

'I’ve seen a lot, but this scares me,' one doctor said. Ahead of the first debates, 70-plus health groups call for moving away from fossil fuels.

A man shields his face from the sun during a New York City heat wave in 2016. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
The American Medical Association and other major health groups are proposing a policy agenda for reducing climate-related health risks. Those risks include extreme heat waves like the one expected in Europe this week. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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The nation’s leading medical organizations are urging political candidates “to recognize climate change as a health emergency.” As the campaign season enters full gear, they issued a call on Monday for urgent action on “one of the greatest threats to health America has ever faced.”

More than 70 health organizations signed a statement that, among other things, calls for a move away from fossil fuels. The groups cite storm and flood emergencies, chronic air pollution, the spread of diseases carried by insects, and especially heat-related illnesses.

Europe is anticipating an intense heat wave starting this week, and parts of the U.S., where extreme heat has been the leading cause of weather-related deaths, have already experienced record-breaking heat this year.


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The health professionals are calling for the U.S. government to act on the goals set under the Paris climate agreement, transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and support “active” transportation networks to encourage walking and cycling.

The American Medical Association and the American Heart Association joined dozens of other organizations in signing the U.S. Call to Action on Climate Health and Equity. Recognizing that climate change poses a greater threat to children, pregnant women and marginalized communities, the groups said that social justice needs to be a mainstay of climate policy.

A main goal is to keep climate change on the political agenda, said Dr. Boris Lushniak, former U.S. deputy surgeon general and dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health.

“It’s really for this discourse to be taken seriously,” Lushniak said. “Climate solutions are health solutions.”

He said climate change stands out as a public health crisis in his career, which has included responding to the anthrax scare, Hurricane Katrina and the spread of ebola. “I’ve seen a lot, but this scares me,” Lushniak said.

Climate Risks to Hospitals

The groups are calling for hospitals and other healthcare systems to adopt “climate-smart” practices, including for energy and water use, transportation and waste management.

At the same time, hospitals need to be prepared for events like the extreme heat expected to hit Europe, said Ed Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University.

Health professionals should ask the question, “Do we even know our climate-related risks in our hospital?” Maibach said. “And if not, we sure would be smart to figure them out as soon as humanly possible.”

Putting Health at Center of Climate Action

Recently, many of the same organizations publicly backed the 21 children and young adults suing the government over climate change. Supporters included two former U.S. surgeons general, Drs. Richard Carmona and David Satcher, who have also called for action on climate change.

[Update: The American Lung Association and the American Public Health Association announced on July 8 that they were suing the Trump administration over the EPA’s decision to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-era power plant emissions regulations, and replace it with a new rule would be only a tiny fraction cleaner than having no regulation at all.]

Dr. Aparna Bole, incoming chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health, said public health can’t be fenced off from other policy concerns.

Health, energy, transportation and food policy tend to be put in compartments, she said. “Continuing to break them down and make sure that health is front and center in climate action is really important for us.”

“We have this incredible opportunity right now to take urgent action to mitigate the impacts of potentially runaway climate change,” she said.