Climate change a threat to public health

This opinion is signed by the board of directors for the Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate: Lori Byron, MD, pediatrician, Hardin; Robert Byron, MD, internal medicine, Hardin; Mari Eggers, PhD, environmental health, Bozeman; Ronni Flannery, JD, Missoula; Tom Roberts, MD, Missoula; Julia Ryder, RN, Bozeman; Elizabeth Schenk, RN, PhD, Missoula; Nick Silverman, PhD, scientist, Missoula; and Paul Smith, MD, pediatric pulmonologist, Missoula.

Originally posted on July 7, 2019 in the Independent Record.

Climate is affecting our health. Today. Here in Montana.

Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate recently formed to promote the health of Montanans by helping address climate change through education, science and advocacy. Our first official action was to endorse the Climate, Health and Equity Policy Agenda.

The Climate, Health and Equity Policy Agenda, endorsed by 74 organizations representing more than half a million doctors, nurses, health systems, public health professionals and patients, calls for urgent action and provides a road map for local, state and national leaders to act now to stop climate pollution, promote resilient communities and support the health of all Americans.

Health Care without Harm, representing 17,000 hospitals, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Lung Association are among the dozens of organizations signed onto the policy priorities.

The past several years have seen a surge of concern from the health community regarding lives lost due to the warming climate and the air pollution that causes it. But rather than just conveying gloom and doom, the health organizations’ Call to Action views climate change as the greatest public health opportunity of the 21st century. Many actions can both improve human health and reduce climate change. This report challenges the United States to embrace such steps. Effective changes in transportation, housing, land use, energy, agriculture and other sectors are available, affordable and potentially lifesaving.

The Call to Action identifies 10 recommendations from the healthcare community. For example, using public transportation where available or bicycling/walking for short errands lends significant health benefits and also lessens greenhouse gas emissions that help heat up our planet. Promotion of farmers markets boosts the purchase of local products, improves the sense of community important to mental health and lowers emissions from transportation. Transitioning to renewable energy saves lives by decreasing air pollution, and also lowers greenhouse gas emissions. Similar actions are already occurring, but health providers say the pace of transformation needs to be quicker.

Equity is central to climate action. As with many health conditions, climate hurts certain populations more: children, the unborn, pregnant women, the elderly, indigenous peoples, low-income people, outdoor workers and those with chronic diseases. All of these populations are well represented in Montana. Physicians and other healthcare professionals feel a moral responsibility to safeguard the vulnerable and contend that U.S. climate policies and investments can serve to alleviate current injustices.

Like the majority of Americans, the health community advocates for meeting and strengthening the commitments made by the United States in the Paris Climate Accords. Doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals want to optimize health for their patients and other members of their communities. Climate change represents a threat to the substantial improvements in public health of the last century. We must minimize the threat and promote the opportunities.