“There Are No Hospitals for Sick Planets”
Scorching-hot summers, raging storms, and melting ice caps offer proof that the Earth’s temperature is rising at an unprecedented rate. Yet the medical and human rights part of the changing climate equation includes crises that don’t seem as obvious to most people, and remain woefully missing. To address this challenge, the MGH Institute of Health Professions Center for Climate Change, Climate Justice, and Health sponsored a day-long virtual symposium addressing the subject.
“Climate Change and Health 2021: The Intersection of Climate Change, COVID-19, and Structural Racism,” held on April 24, drew more than 170 health care professionals and other interested participants from 26 states and Canada.
Among the speakers was Senator Edward Markey (D-MA), a climate and environmental pioneer who talked about the Green New Deal that if passed by Congress, is expected to create hundreds of thousands of new well-paying, environment-friendly jobs while addressing the complex needs in a climate-changing world that includes toxic air and pollutants.
“There are no hospitals for sick planets,” Markey, who sponsored the bill in the U.S. Senate, told conference attendees. “We have to engage in climate care.”
One way to do that, he said, is to reduce greenhouse gases that warm the Earth and impact weather patterns, leading to increased ambient heat, increasing precipitation, growing storm severity, and rising sea levels. Greenhouse gas emissions are also a major contributor to poor air quality.
According to the World Health Organization, pollution’s effects cause the death of an estimated 6 million to 7 million people annually worldwide—far more than the 3.1 million fatalities from COVID-19 in the last year. To deal with that impact, Markey said he intends to introduce legislation to create a national strategy to address the health implications of climate change, particularly in poor and minority communities, which are often disproportionally affected. Among the first steps, he said, would be creating a national climate service to keep the public informed on climate issues. “We need an aroused American public that can demand its government throw off the yoke of fossil fuel … so we can deal with the threat to the planet ... and the underlying diseases on our planet that are linked to environmental pollution,” he said.
A Cause of Myriad Health Problems
Other conference presenters, including keynote speaker Dr. Renee Salas, a fellow at the Center for Climate Health and the Global Environment (C-CHANGE) at Harvard University and emergency medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, discussed other aspects of climate change. Salas pointed to research that demonstrates a link between climate change and cardiovascular and respiratory problems, mental health issues, and a resistance to antibiotics. Changes in water quality, caused by powerful storms, can create waterborne illnesses and attract vector-borne illnesses carried by mosquitos and insects from other parts of the world, she explained. Further severe weather events can disrupt lives, created complex challenges to health, and lead to forced displacement and migration in human populations.
“As converging crises layer on each other, our system is stretched,” said Salas, who also serves as an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School. Those converging climate factors affected the ability to respond to the coronavirus, she noted. “COVID-19 has shown us what happens when we fail to listen to the science. COVID-19 has shown us viruses don’t have borders just as greenhouse gases do not. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that prevention is key, and we have to address that because we have a shared interest. It has shown us the power of our voices as health professionals.”
The pandemic has also starkly illustrated the effects of structural racism, which means, among other things, that racially segregated neighborhoods and unequal access to medical care are linked with climate change and associated health consequences. For example, in areas known as “heat islands,” which are often located in minority communities and lack the green space, parks, and trees that keep wealthier neighborhoods cooler, the effects of both the pandemic and climate change have been even more profound. Research suggests that residents in heat islands are more likely to suffer from health conditions such as asthma. That in turn, Salas said, can heighten susceptibility to COVID-19. “We have to develop a health care core that limits disparities and helps people in cities of color to have the tools they need to access the health care they need to treat these conditions,” she said.
How to get these messages out to policymakers and the public remain a daunting task. Meteorologists Pete Bouchard, with NBC 10 in Boston, and Keith L. Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society, said the window to act is narrowing. “Earth’s health is inseparable from our own,” said Bouchard, noting that climate change is causing some parts of the world to become uninhabitable.
In Massachusetts, meteorological projections indicate that certain neighborhoods of Boston could be underwater in the future if ocean levels rise by six feet. “Today we’re getting 70 percent more rain than we had in the 1950s,” Seitter said, adding that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased 50 percent since the 1960s as the temperature has increased by just over 1 degree Celsius, or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit.
One problem, the meteorologists said, is how to convey this critical information to policymakers and the public. “There is no vaccine for climate change,” said Bouchard. “This is going to span generations. There’s no cure.”
Hope on the Horizon
Yet there is hope. There’s been a 3,200 percent increase in climate reporting, a 56 percent increase in meteorologists who are interested in reporting on climate change, and a 42 percent increase in climate reporting on social media, said Bouchard. That means awareness is rising among many. Urging the public to listen and approaches to climate change communication are incredibly important.
Climate change advocates like Dr. Caleb Dresser, a fellow in Climate and Human Health Program at the Harvard School of Public Health C-CHANGE and an emergency medicine physician at the Beth Israel-Lahey/Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Dr. Regina LaRocque, with the Massachusetts General Hospital Division of Infectious Diseases and an associate professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, believe people are listening. But policy and advocacy are critical as next steps.
“Speaking up is the first step,” said LaRocque. She encourages other health care providers to talk about the issues of climate change with friends, family members, patients, communities, health care administrators, and legislators locally and nationally.
Dresser urged colleagues to go further and take public action: from initiating public climate change campaigns to posting climate change information on social media to voting for candidates who share the concern.
“We challenge you to contact your local legislators. We want to move the needle around climate change and health,” added Dr. Patrice Nicholas, director of the IHP’s climate center and a professor of nursing.
“All of these challenges are enormously complex,” noted Salas, explaining that action is urgently needed in the next five to 10 years to “decide the fate of humanity and health care. We can no longer put bandages on bullet wounds.”
Mother Earth would likely agree.
- Beverly Ford