• Physicians Have Role to Play in Addressing Climate Change

    April 22, 2024

    By Tochi Iroku-Malize, M.D., M.P.H., M.B.A., FAAFP
    AAFP Board Chair

    Whether it’s a bread-and-butter clinical topic like vaccinations or a subject that connects to health care in ways that are less obvious to lay people, family physicians are ethically bound to address issues that impact the people we care for. That includes taking every opportunity to talk to legislators and regulators about those issues and what they can do to help.

    Today is Earth Day, so let’s talk about how the environment is affecting health. Here in New York, people are choking on the air we breathe. The city has some of the country’s highest rates of hospitalizations and deaths due to asthma. As the planet warms, allergy season lengthens and respiratory symptoms are exacerbated.

    Climate change will continue to impact the health of our patients, families and communities. Warmer and wetter weather could mean more mosquitoes, more infections and the spread of vector-borne diseases. Last year, two southern states reported locally acquired malaria cases for the first time in decades.

    Natural disasters are becoming more common, threatening to displace people and wreak havoc. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there were a record-breaking 28 weather and climate disasters in 2023 that each caused at least $1 billion in damage.

    Can you guess which years take the other top spots in the NOAA’s devastation record book?

    • 2020

    • 2021 and

    • 2022 (tied for fourth with 2011 and 2017).

    Last year’s unrelenting destruction came in many forms: drought, floods, hail, tornadoes, tropical cyclones, wildfire, winter storm and more.

    Health care systems and clinics need to be prepared for such disasters, the potential influx of people needing care and the related strain on resources and access points.

    But we can do more than prepare for the worst. We can do our best to mitigate the crisis. The health care sector is responsible for 8.5% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, so what can we do to preserve our mission to protect and promote health?

     Northwell Health, where I chair the Department of Family Medicine, has committed to meet the administration’s climate goal of cutting emissions in half by 2030 and achieving net zero emissions by 2050. It’s a big challenge for a health system that has more than 20 hospitals and nearly 900 outpatient facilities.

    Because of that commitment, I was invited to represent Northwell and the AAFP late last year and speak at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP 28, in the United Arab Emirates. The event, which drew 65,000 people from roughly 200 countries, highlighted the impact of climate change on health care delivery.

    The previous record for attendance at the annual conference was 36,000 a year earlier. That 80% increase tells me people are finally starting to listen. It’s not too late.

    The climate crisis is one of the greatest threats to health in this century, and we need to fight back. You don’t have to travel to Dubai to get involved. We can be advocates for the environment and our patients in our own practices, health systems, communities and states.

    As family physicians, we can and should have a voice in this critical issue because our opinion matters on anything that affects our patients’ health.


    The opinions and views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions and views of the American Academy of Family Physicians. This blog is not intended to provide medical, financial, or legal advice. All comments are moderated and will be removed if they violate our Terms of Use.