Will we implement public health policies that will reverse the trends of climate change and secure humanity's future? It remains to be seen.
Editor's note: This article was produced in partnership with Wisconsin Health Professionals for Climate Action. They are committed to communicating that the global climate crisis is a public health emergency, and advocating for equitable solutions to decrease the impact of climate change on human health. This article is the final article in a three-part series discussing human health, climate change and social justice. Read Part 1 and Part 2.
Humanity faces exactly three possible futures. In one, we thrive: after realigning our relationship with nature, homo sapiens reaps the benefits of a healthy climate and our paradise on Earth. In another, we survive: unrelenting degradation of our planet’s ability to sustain life leaves us desperately clinging to a fraying existence. The third possibility is the stuff of nightmares.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth assessment in August, and the results are grim. The findings, while nothing new to those of us who have been following the science, are still sobering. According to the report, a comprehensive summary of the state of climate science, the overlapping extreme weather events that have ravaged the world this past year are just the tip of the spear. A hotter, more chaotic future is guaranteed; some of those changes are baked into the system because of how much carbon has already been emitted. What is uncertain is how the decades after that will play out. Which future humanity faces is entirely in our choosing – it will be governed by the policy choices we make today.
Climate breakdown is the end result of forces that have transformed our planet and economic system since the industrial revolution. It is an existential threat to human civilization and survival, and the biggest public health crisis ever. Climate change is caused by and affects every aspect of modern life, so its solutions must go beyond bold and urgent; they must be transformative. Yet these remedies can, and must, be implemented. Our planet is very sick, and therefore, so are we.
The easiest (relatively speaking) and most fundamental policy solution we can undertake is to electrify everything and power the grid with clean energy. That is just the start, and there are ways to get there. A 2014 study showed that any policies that incentivize demand for lower-emission technologies are the most effective in driving renewable energy innovation and thereby reversing current greenhouse gas emission trends. This, coupled with deep and widespread adaptation strategies, will give us the best chance for a healthy future.
While it is impossible to cover the myriad policies proposed in every industry to decarbonize our global economy, we can highlight the specific ways health professionals can contribute to the effort.
In the recent past, we counseled our patients on effective ways to quit smoking while educating policymakers on the dangers of cigarette smoke and advocating for policies to make smoking less common, especially among children. The parallels to the climate crisis – where the most powerful corporations on earth have waged a decades-long, multi-billion-dollar disinformation campaign – are obvious.
Now, ironically, the healthcare industry bears a huge responsibility for the climate health crisis. It accounts for 4.4 – 4.6% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, and the American healthcare system accounts for a quarter of these. According to Health Care Without Harm’s landmark paper on the environmental impact of the industry, if the health sector were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter on the planet. Health professionals therefore have much work to do to get our own house in order. While we care for our patient’s health, we must also tackle this enormous public health crisis.
Physician, heal thyself.
Luckily, Health Care Without Harm has identified six policy steps the industry can take right now to achieve the goal of decarbonization. This framework establishes a climate-resilient future led by health professionals. First, reduce health care’s climate footprint immediately. This can be accomplished by reducing the emissions from facilities, investing in and advocating for decarbonization of energy systems at the local and national levels, and setting criteria for zero-carbon procurement to begin decarbonizing the supply chain. Second, the industry should support a societal transition to clean, renewable energy.
Third, leaders should simultaneously chart a course for zero emissions in health care by 2050. Fourth, we must practice climate-smart healthcare by adapting – making our infrastructure climate-resilient. For urgent proof of this, look up videos of hospital roofs being torn apart by Hurricane Ida, or water cascading into New York City’s subways. Fifth, we should establish and implement government action plans for climate-smart healthcare. Finally, health professionals need to deepen research on climate and health.
As some of the most trusted members of society, health professionals are also well-equipped to communicate the health risks of the climate crisis and advocate for equitable policy solutions of all types. Research from the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University shows that the health message is highly effective at opening or changing minds on climate.
Ed Maibach, a research scientist at the Center, has found that people who hold these five beliefs about climate change are much more likely to support action: 1. Experts agree human-caused climate change is happening, 2. It’s real, 3. It’s us (human-caused), 4. It’s bad (for people), 5. It’s solvable. Focusing on climate’s impacts on health and the economic benefits of clean energy also give lawmakers from both sides of the aisle cover to support climate action. This is an area where health professionals can really step up.
Luckily, health professionals are finally acknowledging the risk in a big way. Over 200 medical and health journals from across the spectrum recently published the same editorial calling a 1.5oC rise in global temperatures the “greatest threat to global public health.” Hopefully understanding the threat spurs more of us to action.
The pandemic has given us a glimpse of the power and limitation of international cooperation in combating a public health emergency. If we knew COVID-19 was coming, what would we have done differently? With climate change, we have known for decades that the next and possibly last public health emergency was looming and we did nothing. Now it is here and rapidly getting worse. The 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, will be held in Glasgow this November. That meeting may well be humanity’s last chance to create durable, globally enforceable climate mitigation and adaptation policies. The stakes could not be higher.
Whatever the shape of those policies, the goals are the same and simple to grasp: transition to clean energy, minimize waste, clean the air and water, and prepare for what we know is coming. It will not be easy, but failure is unimaginable and success represents the greatest health and economic opportunity in human history. The climate crisis is a public health emergency so the consequences of our choices are stark. The future is ours to choose.
Dr. Chirantan Mukhopadhyay is an ophthalmologist and current retina fellow at the University of Iowa. He is passionate about patient care, education, and public health. He became passionate about climate change advocacy when the US withdrew from the Paris Accord after the birth of his second child. He believes doing is the best cure for despair. In 2019, he co-founded and became the first president of Wisconsin Health Professionals for Climate Action.