Doctors March for Climate Change: A Public Health Crisis

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Doctors March for Climate Change: A Public Health Crisis

Doctors agree... the Earth is sick. (Photo: Light Brigading/cc/flickr)

On Sunday, September 21st, almost 400,000 world citizens filled the streets in New York City for the Peoples Climate March. Among the vocal participants demanding climate action was a sizeable cohort of physicians outfitted in their white coats and stethoscopes.

But why are doctors fighting for global climate policy?

Put simply, health is inextricably and fundamentally linked to climate change as stated in a powerful article published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

The authors aggregated research from 56 scientific articles, made future projections and came up with some sobering conclusions. They connected the dots between particulate pollution and asthma, greenhouse gases and the development of heart disease.

Climate change does much more than exacerbate environmental health risks already familiar to clinicians—it plays a central role in the emergence and spread of infectious diseases, like malaria and most recently the Ebola virus.  These outbreaks occur through many mechanisms, including shifts in the migration patterns of animals that carry disease. With changing environmental temperatures affecting ecosystems worldwide, and the encroachment of humans deeper into forests, with deforestation, mining, and conflict, it is a set up for more outbreaks. 

The JAMA article concludes with an appeal to healthcare providers and organized medicine to take their knowledge of the health effects of climate change to the public.

This article does not represent ‘new science’ but 20 years of widely accepted facts that have already established humanity’s role in climate change and its current and future impact on population health. What has changed is the face of the global climate movement, seen in the diversity of those who took to the streets of New York City last week. Besides doctors, indigenous peoples in traditional dress marched alongside suit-clad business executives. Families brought their small children.

It was heartening to see other healthcare providers marching in solidarity with patients and the communities they serve. As a fourth year medical student, I believe medicine has a much larger role to play.

The medical profession has taken the lead before. The greatest public health achievements of the 20th century were the product of doctors leaving the lab and exam room to fight the root causes of disease: sanitation and clean water have saved more lives than any other medical intervention.

As a species, we have arrived at a flash point and each new environmental catastrophe is a spark. Our actions from here on out will define our shared future. The health of entire populations relies on a sustained and united campaign to combat the driving forces of climate change. Healthcare providers are called upon to play an even more active role in this battle, but it is not up to them alone. The people, businesses, corporations and government agencies need to link arms and join together to confront this public health crisis.

James Besante

James Besante

Dr. James Besante is a physician practicing in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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