Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action educating elected officials in Richmond on climate change and health in January of this year.

Mark Mitchell is a preventive medicine physician trained in public health and an Associate Professor of Climate Change, Energy, and Environmental Health Equity at George Mason University. Mona Sarfaty is a physician and the Director of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health. Ed Maibach is the director of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. Rob Gould is a senior communication strategist and a member of the George Mason University Health and Climate Solutions team. 

The post below is an abbreviated version of a commentary originally published in the leading medical journal PLOS Medicine.

Health professionals can “change the frame” for climate change

Despite the fact that climate change is currently most commonly understood as an “environmental” issue, it’s the reality that it is a public health emergency that is most relevant to people. Climate change is already causing profound harms to human health—across the United States and across the globe—and these harms are likely to get much worse as time goes by. If the leaders of the world fail to limit global warming—ideally to 1.5 degrees C—the prospects for the health and prosperity of future generations, our children and grandchildren, and theirs, will become increasingly dim. We need to change the framing of climate change as an environmental threat to a health threat in order to create immediate relevance and urgency among the public.

Health professionals must lead this effort.

Advocating aggressive response to climate change raises concern about costs, but the truth is that the health benefits of climate action are enormous. Recent studies have found that the health benefits will actually entirely offset the cost of taking action to stop climate change.  In short, climate solutions are health solutions. Many of the necessary actions to limit climate change create almost immediate benefits in terms of cleaner air, cleaner water and better health for people today—especially the people who are most vulnerable to the health ravages of climate change. The sooner that leaders—in nations, states and communities—implement climate solutions, the sooner their people will enjoy the benefits of living in healthier, more equitable communities. 

When human health is taken into consideration, climate action becomes a “win-win” opportunity.

It is true that climate change has been wildly politicized, especially in the US, and many voices that should be trusted have been vilified or outshouted. But here is the good news: when heath professionals speak about what harms health, people listen.  In communities across America—and across the world—health professionals are among the most trusted members of society. Health professionals earned and retain this trust, by placing the public’s interests above all other interests.  That is why when doctors speak of changes they are seeing in their practices — from longer allergy seasons, to increases in insect-borne disease, heat stroke and other health harms — the counter-attacks from the usual suspects fall silent and public sentiment becomes more unified around concern and support for action. 

 Three global objectives to protect the health of humanity 

As we see it, human civilization must achieve three objectives in our response to climate change. First, a process that is already well underway—transitioning to a clean energy economy—must be greatly accelerated.  Essentially, carbon emissions must be removed from all aspects of our lives, including electricity generation, transportation, heating, cooling, manufacturing and agriculture. This must be accomplished soon—in the next few decades—and doing so is entirely feasible. Communities will see immediate benefits to their health from this transition. When an oil, natural gas, or coal-fired power plant is used less or taken offline entirely in a community, the health of everyone in that community benefits as a result of cleaner air and water—especially the most vulnerable residents, including children, the elderly, people with chronic illnesses, and people in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

Second, to reverse the harmful impacts on our climate, much of the heat-trapping carbon pollution that has been emitted into our atmosphere over the past two centuries must be removed. This can be done through natural carbon-capture techniques—including better forestry, land-use and agricultural practices—and through technology-based carbon capture. This is a massive global project, but the sooner it begins and gets to scale, the sooner the world’s levels of carbon pollution will begin to drop. When communities are “greened” by planting trees, or by restoring its soil through regenerative agriculture methods, again, the health of people in these communities benefit almost immediately. 

Third, no matter what progress is made on these first two objectives, communities, states and nations must become more resilient to prevent health harms from the unavoidable changes in our climate that lay ahead. The excess heat-trapping pollution that is already in our atmosphere will continue to warm the planet and cause other changes in the climate—globally and locally—for many generations to come, and it will have harmful health consequences if steps aren’t taken to prepare for and prevent it. When efforts are made to ensure that people aren’t needlessly hurt by our changing climate—for example, by educational campaigns to raise awareness of the increased threats from Lyme disease or advocacy for increased mental health services after extreme weather events  – lives are improved and saved.

For example, implementing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE) framework—by implementing measures such as mosquito abatement, improved access to cooling and hydration during heat events and improved air filtration downwind of wildfires—can help communities increase their resilience to health harms from climate change. More communities must begin taking similar steps in climate adaptation to prevent further health harm. 

Health professionals can champion these objectives locally and nationally too

In our commentary, we encouraged leading medical and other health provider organizations to mount a worldwide advocacy initiative aimed at convincing national leaders in government to accelerate current efforts and expand commitments to these objectives.  But the fact is that such a campaign has a much greater chance to succeed if it is married to, and fueled by, health professionals actively engaged at the community level. 

The bottom line is this:  time is short and health professionals can make a critical difference by reframing and responding to climate change as the health emergency it is. If health professionals are to live by our tenet – “do no harm” – we must act. 

The bracing truth is that the health and wellbeing of every human being alive today – as well as those yet to be born – depends on it.