Climate change is a public health emergency. As healthcare professionals, we have a responsibility to advocate for reducing carbon emissions to ensure everyone’s health.
The hottest day on record was last week on July 7, 2023. This disconcerting event occurred in a year already filled with historic climate-related disasters, such as the uncontainable forest fires in Canada that have significantly impacted global air quality. The need to address the climate crisis has never felt more urgent.
Climate change is a major health concern
Clinicians have a fundamental responsibility to promote and safeguard human health. The climate crisis has been recognized by many health organizations as the greatest threat to human health of the 21st century. What’s more, the health impacts of climate change are unevenly distributed, and usually patterned along lines of historical marginalization and exploitation. And as noted by the latest IPCC report, there are no areas in the world free from the effects of climate change.
Climate change impacts all levels of clinical care
As an internal medicine doctor working in Baltimore, Maryland, I frequently witness hospital admissions for patients that are climate related. Especially patients on multiple cardiovascular medications due to syncope on hot days, or patients with COPD with respiratory exacerbations on days with terrible air quality. However, the climate crisis has potential impacts on all medical specialties, from a patient with lung cancer who suffers a disruption in receiving specialized treatments due to an extreme weather event, to a young child whose asthma is worsened due to a nearby forest fire, to a post-surgical patient exposed to severe heat and air pollution. By recognizing and addressing climate-related health risks, we can help our patients and communities prepare, respond, and adapt to the climate crisis.
As healthcare professionals, we have a unique opportunity to make an impact
The project to address climate change represents a tremendous opportunity in improving health, at an individual level and through systemic change. There are numerous health co-benefits related to climate adaptation and mitigation. These include improving air quality, urban planning that fosters biking and walking, and transforming our food systems to favor plant-based diets.
In addition, if the global healthcare system were a country, it would be the fifth largest carbon emitter in the world. We must transform our healthcare systems to be more adapted and resilient to climate stressors, and also to reduce carbon emissions and hopefully achieve carbon neutrality within healthcare.
Climate and health should be a fundamental component of our medical curriculums
Healthcare professionals are on the forefront of treating the health effects of climate change and require the knowledge and skills to address these challenges. Due to the complex and multidisciplinary nature of the impacts of climate change, incorporating climate change education into all levels of medical training will advance a deeper and more systems-based understanding of the environmental, social, and economic factors that influence climate-related health outcomes. This includes incorporating climate and health into our longitudinal medical curricula for medical students, as well as creating opportunities in residency and beyond to deepen our competency in planetary health.
Across the country and the world, grassroots movements for a more sustainable, just, and equitable healthcare system are gaining momentum. Inspirational work has been done by medical students across the nation, advocating for an increased focus on climate change in their training and even creating a Planetary Health Report Card, which is a student-driven evaluation of health professional schools on climate-related metrics. There are many organizations with resources to help you make a difference. These include Healthcare Without Harm, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Planetary Health Alliance, and The Medical Society Consortium on Climate Change. Nationally, the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services created the Health Sector Climate Pledge that asks signees to commit to reducing their organization’s emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and achieving net carbon neutrality by 2050, as well as publicly reporting their progress and developing climate resilience plans for their facilities and communities. Numerous hospitals, health systems, and other health-related organizations, including the Joint Commission, have signed this pledge, signed this pledge, which signals momentum towards creating a better climate future within healthcare.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.