Why Tackle Climate Change? 'Our Health and the Planet Are at Stake'

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ACP speaks out in an effort to mitigate the negative effects on public health

May 17, 2019 (ACP) – Stressing that a warming planet poses a dire threat to public health, the American College of Physicians has become a leading voice supporting action to combat climate change.

That includes speaking out in support of legislation – the Climate Action Now Act – passed May 2 by the House of Representatives that directs the United States to uphold the Paris climate agreement.

Though the Senate and the president are unlikely to allow the legislation to move forward, ACP is standing firm and continuing to urge positive and decisive action from policymakers.

“ACP knows that climate change is real, humans are mostly responsible, and it's affecting our health,” said Ryan Crowley, senior associate for health policy with ACP. “Taking action now will help prevent environmental catastrophe and yield co-benefits for human health.”

ACP is not a newcomer to the climate change discussion. In 2016, the College released a policy paper, called “Climate Change and Health,” that discusses how climate change impacts human health by raising the risk for various diseases. As ACP notes, the poor, sick and elderly are especially vulnerable.

“As climate change worsens, an increase in global temperature and frequency of heat waves will raise the risk of heat exhaustion,” Dr. Robert McLean, ACP's president, wrote in a letter to the representative who introduced the House bill. “Asthma and other chronic lung conditions will be exacerbated by increased particulate matter and ground-level ozone in the atmosphere. Exposure to infectious disease from vectors such as ticks and mosquitoes, which carry the harmful Zika virus, has and will continue to escalate.”

The policy paper calls for a global effort to mitigate and adapt to climate change. It also calls on the health care sector, which is responsible for a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions, to take action to be more environmentally sustainable.

“We also developed a ‘tool kit’ for physicians to better understand how climate change affects the health of their patients and community,” Crowley said. “It includes resources to help physicians make their facilities and practices more sustainable.”

Reflecting the priorities of its policy statement, ACP strongly opposed President Trump's bid to remove the United States from the Paris Agreement. “Unfortunately,” Crowley said, “the administration has decided to encourage fossil fuel exploration and use, and it has sought to roll back a number of important regulations that curb greenhouse gas emissions.”

The House, which is now controlled by Democrats, passed its climate change bill by a vote of 231-190. According to a CNN report, “it prohibits the use of federal funds from being used to withdraw from the treaty,” and it “requires the president to meet U.S. obligations under the Paris Agreement of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.”

Though ACP's leadership understands that the bill is unlikely to go further, the College refuses to stand down. This month, a number of ACP members, including McLean, joined with the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health to meet with members of Congress and explain how climate change affects human health and how addressing it can yield benefits that would improve people's health.

ACP also recently submitted a statement for the record to the House Committee on Natural Resources, urging Congress to pass legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions and implement adaptation policies. And, ACP has joined other groups in opposing the Trump administration's proposals to scale back policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

What's needed moving forward? Crowley pointed to a 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that concluded it will take “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to keep global temperature from rising to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

“There's so much urgency and too little action, and this bill is just a small step in the right direction,” he said. “The U.S. needs to lead on addressing climate change. Our health and the planet are at stake.”

More Information

ACP's letter to Congress supporting the Climate Action Now Act is available on the College's website, along with the public statement ACP issued when the bill passed the House of Representatives.

The ACP position paper, Climate Change and Health, is available on the Annals of Internal Medicine website.

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