The Health Effects Of Climate Change Are Many, But This Doc Sees Reasons For Hope
The physical effects of climate change are easy to see. Wildfires in the American West. Flooding and other destruction from storms and rising sea levels. But the health effects of climate change are incremental, and less visible.
They creep up on us in health statistics that don't make the TV news: high temperatures that lead to higher incidences of heat stress, heart failure and reduced ability to work; asthma and cardiovascular disease from air pollution; worsening allergies and malnutrition as agricultural patterns change; diseases spread by water, insects and animals; anxiety, despair and other mental stresses from disasters or everyday worry about climate change.
"So there's no shortage of evidence that things are changing very rapidly on our planet. That leads to a number of health impacts," said Dr. Howard Frumkin, a physician, epidemiologist and professor emeritus at the University of Washington School of Public Health.
Frumkin spoke this week to North Carolina Clinicians for Climate Action, a group of medical professionals who want to protect health and find climate solutions. It's one of the many initiatives of the climate group CleanAire NC. (More about the group below.)
All those health concerns around climate change could be cause for alarm. He said a lot of doomsayers are spreading what he called climate disaster porn. "It is apocalyptic. It's scary, and it paves the way to despair," Frumkin said.
"You may be feeling a little depressed already just hearing me go through this litany. And if you are, you're not alone," he said.
But Frumkin is a climate optimist and sees lots of reasons for hope. In his talk to N.C. Clinicians for Climate Action, he offered a list:
- Technology is advancing. "Battery technology, which is a key part of our transition from fossil electricity to renewable electricity … is advancing phenomenally fast," Frumkin said.
- Economics are improving. "Battery costs have plummeted more than 97% in just two decades. And photovoltaic solar is now cheaper than fossil electricity almost everywhere, ushering in what's been called the cheapest energy the world has ever seen."
- Policy is maturing. Frumkin said two countries have already reached net-zero carbon emissions - Bhutan and Suriname. Another 12 are committed to reaching that level by 2050 and more are on the way. "Here in the U.S., where we've had, to put it gently, a jagged course toward reducing our emissions, the Biden administration is taking very positive steps."
- Activism is blossoming, "led by heroic young people worldwide. This activism in turn, drives more ambitious policies," he said.
- Public opinion is shifting in the U.S., which Frumkin said "has long been a bastion of climate denial on a worldwide scale. The proportion of the public that accepts that climate change is real and is concerned about its effects and wants to see action has been steadily rising even during the years of the Trump administration. He cited a Fox News poll after the 2020 election that found that 67% of voters somewhat or strongly favored increased government spending on green and renewable energy.
- Culture change is possible. Frumkin pointed to how U.S. consumers changed their habits for the war effort during World War II. "This is something that the public can do. We've seen it before."
- Results are emerging. Solar, wind and hydroelectric power are growing fast, "So we're seeing an energy transition happening," Frumkin said.
- Extensive co-benefits. All the changes are having positive effects. "Tackling the climate crisis is good for health. The health co-benefits of climate action mean that decarbonizing our economy isn't a story of deprivation and sacrifice. It's a story of opportunity and healthier lives," he said.
Frumkin's lesson? Climate efforts are working and we need to keep it up.
"There are a lot of solutions at hand, and there is a lot of reason for hope," he said. He urged people to make changes in their daily lives — from eating to travel to consuming goods. Health professionals can bring it into the examination room, and get patients to think about climate change and their health. And clinicians can work to make sure their health systems, research labs and offices are green.