NewsFebruary 11, 2013

Canadian Doctors Urged to Fight Climate Change

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Michael D. Lemonick

By Michael D. Lemonick

Scientists began talking seriously about some dangers of climate change more than 30 years ago — rising seas, changing weather patterns, more rain in rainy places and more drought in dry places, and more. But the risks that lie outside their areas of expertise have taken longer to draw attention — especially in the area of human health.

That has started to change, however, as medical professionals have begun to understand how a changing climate could lead to all sorts public health problems — increased mortality as heat waves become more intense and more common; a rising incidence of allergies; the spread of infectious diseases into new areas; and more. The latest evidence of this growing awareness: an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that lays out the facts and urges doctors to become more vocal in demanding action against climate change.

As awareness grows among medical professionals, doctors have been urged to become more vocal in demanding action against climate change.

The editorial, titled “Physicans’ roles on the front line of climate change,” isn’t the first of its kind. The American Medical Association published its own version in 2011, and in 2009 the British Medical Journal called climate change “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”

Like anti-smoking campaigners before them, however, medical professionals who are concerned about global warming don’t mind the repetition. The only issue for Barbara Sibbold, the journal’s deputy editor and author of the editorial, was when to publish. “I’ve been wanting to write about the issue for some time,” she said in an interview, “but I felt we needed to tie it to some sort of news event. Otherwise it’s like coming out for motherhood and apple pie.”

The event turned out to be the U.N.-sponsored COP-18 climate negotiations held in Doha, Qatar, in December. The conference was generally disappointing to those concerned about climate change, but it did result in a document called the Doha Declaration on Climate, Health and Wellbeing, which called for recognition that public “health is one of the crucial reasons for fighting global warming.”

Just a few weeks earlier, moreover, the World Health Organization and the World Meteorological Organization had issued their massive “Atlas of health and climate,” laying out the relationship between climate change and health impacts. “It was a really important step in establishing an evidence base for the climate-health connection,” Sibbold said.

Together, the conference and publication of the atlas convinced her that the time was finally right for an editorial. In part, it lays out what health experts have already concluded about climate and health — that an estimated 140,000 deaths per year since 1970 can plausibly be attributed to climate change, for example, or that by 2030 the world will be spending between $2 and $4 billion annually in climate-related health costs. It also points out what may not yet be clear to physicians: that they’ll be the first responders to this growing health crisis.

But the piece also calls on doctors to take concrete actions — signing as individual endorsers of the Doha Declaration, pressuring medical schools and professional associations to sign on as well, and working to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions at the hospitals and clinics where they practice.

Nobody is expecting an immediate rush by doctors to become climate crusaders, of course; the editorial is mostly a consciousness-raising exercise. But doctors’ consciousness will ultimately be raised in any case, argues Sibbold, who writes that “Physicians will be among the front-line responders to the dire effects of climate change, from malnutrition, to increases in vector-borne disease, to respiratory illness and the aftermath of traumatic weather events.”

The sooner physicians begin to realize this, goes the theory, the more willing they’ll be to try and prevent some of the worst of it from happening in the first place. 

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