Kenny Lin, MD, MPH
Posted on September 6, 2021
Today, one week ahead of the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly, more than 200 health journals worldwide have simultaneously published an editorial calling on health professionals, policy makers, and governments to support emergency actions to limit average global temperature increases to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Asserting that increases above that level would "risk catastrophic harm to health that will be impossible to reverse," the editorial's authors advocate for "fundamental and equitable changes to societies" to alter the world's current catastrophic temperature trajectory:
Equity must be at the center of the global response. Contributing a fair share to the global effort means that reduction commitments must account for the cumulative, historical contribution each country has made to emissions, as well as its current emissions and capacity to respond. Wealthier countries will have to cut emissions more quickly, making reductions by 2030 beyond those currently proposed and reaching net-zero emissions before 2050.
Last month, a landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that human activities since 1850, primarily burning of fossil fuels, have already warmed the planet by 1.1 degrees Celsius. At 1.5 degrees, the IPCC warned, extreme weather patterns would become more frequent, and rising sea levels, vector-borne diseases, life-threatening heat waves, and severe droughts would affect billions of people worldwide. Currently, the 10 countries with the greatest greenhouse gas emissions (China, the U.S., the European Union, India, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia, Iran, and Canada) account for more than two-thirds of global emissions.
American Family Physician strongly supports this global effort to prevent future environmental catastrophes. Our first full-length clinical review article about the health impacts of global warming appeared in 2011. An accompanying editorial highlighted the physician's role in efforts to slow global warming, including reducing the carbon footprints of hospitals and health care facilities. In 2016, Associate Deputy Editor Caroline Wellbery, MD, PhD observed that the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans' "heart-healthy recommendations align with ... environmental concerns," making eating less meat a healthy and environmentally responsible dietary choice.
A 2019 update on managing health impacts of climate change discussed ways that clinicians can mitigate "morbidity and mortality from worsening cardiopulmonary health, worsening allergies, and greater risk of infectious disease and mental illness, including anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder from extreme weather events." Health professionals must recognize how their workplaces directly contribute to making climates less healthy: "The U.S. health care sector is responsible for 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions, 10% of smog formation, 12% of air pollution emissions, and smaller but significant amounts of ozone-depleting substances and other air toxicants." The article also suggested counseling patients on the personal and environmental benefits of utilizing active transport and a consuming plant-based diets.
Physicians' lack of training in climate science and global warming's negative impacts on health may be an obstacle to leveraging the collective authority of the medical profession to address the climate crisis. This gap is closing, though, as recent editorials in Academic Medicine have called for critical curricular reforms in medical school and residency education, and in some cases, medical students themselves have been leading these educational efforts.
Leaders of the the United Kingdom Health Alliance on Climate Change have published a follow-up document about the accomplishments and shortcomings of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow.
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