Opinion: Congress, it’s time to follow your doctor’s prescription on climate change

Op-ed in The Hill: Congress, it’s time to follow your doctor’s prescription on climate change

Mona Sarfaty, Executive Director

Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health

Read in The Hill 

Imagine a father of several small children who receives a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness. He’s reluctant to accept the diagnosis. He thinks his symptoms are probably just a passing thing. Moreover, he’s worried that any treatment for the diagnosed condition might be worse than the disease itself.

Now imagine that he seeks a second opinion a third and so on until the patient has consulted with 100 doctors. In the end, 97 of these 100 doctors confirm the diagnosis, concluding that he has a life-threatening illness. This story has a happy ending, however, because as soon as the patient begins taking the necessary steps to deal with his condition, his health improves dramatically.

In reality, Congress is the patient and the condition is climate change. Over 97 percent of climate scientists have concluded, based on the evidence, that human-caused climate change is happening.

Doctors, like me, who have conducted research on the health implications of climate change have concluded, again based on the evidence, that climate change threatens the health of Americans in many ways.

These threats range from more air pollution that increases the risk of heart and lung disease to deaths, illnesses and mental health impacts of wildfires and extreme weather events like the recent devastating fires in the west and destructive hurricanes in the southeast.

We are seeing these harms in our practices and we also saw them formally documented in the findings of the fourth National Climate Assessment, which was released Friday by the Trump Administration, as legally mandated by Congress.

The National Climate Assessment makes clear that the health of every American can be harmed, but this report further highlights the unacceptable reality that children, older adults, people with chronic illness, people with lower incomes and people in some communities of color are facing the greatest health threats from climate change.

But like our fictitious patient described above, the National Climate Assessment reminds us that our climate change story can have a happy ending.

The actions we need to take to limit climate change — most importantly, reducing energy waste and accelerating the transition to a clean energy economy — will also lead to healthier and more prosperous citizens and communities.

This was clearly documented in a 2017 study by Abt Associates which looked at the environmental and public health impact of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in nine Northeastern states. Nine states came together in 2009 to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Abt Associates found the efforts of these states “created major benefits to public health and productivity, including avoiding hundreds of premature deaths and tens of thousands of lost work days.”

With a new Congress being seated in January, my medical colleagues and I hope every member is willing to face the reality that climate change is the biggest threat to our health and well-being. We hope they will also recognize that responding to climate change is our biggest public health opportunity.

As physicians, our primary responsibility is to help our patients be as healthy as possible. To achieve this aim we need Congress to do its part. Therefore, we want every member of the new Congress to hear our voices on this issue. We will know they are truly listening if they issue three responses:

1. They publicly affirm the reality of human-caused climate change and its harmful impacts on the health and well-being of American families, communities and businesses and particularly our most vulnerable citizens.

2. They develop and support legislation that will greatly accelerate America’s transition to a future powered by clean energy and enhanced energy efficiency, paced by meaningful goals and timetables, to improve the health of all Americans, now and in the future.

3. They develop and support legislation that will help American communities protect themselves and become more equitable and more resilient to the harms of climate change, so that people are not needlessly hurt.

Congress, it is time to listen to America’s doctors and act for our health.

Mona Sarfaty, MD, MPH, is the Director of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health based at George Mason University