The Medical Response to Climate Change is Growing

Sign the pledge of the Climate and Health Council: an international organization dedicated to combating climate change.

ZERO CARBON  There is universal agreement that global temperature and ocean acidification cannot stabilize without zero carbon emissions.

Tell governments that at the Dec 2015 UN Paris climate conference they must commit to acting on the best case IPCC AR5 emissions scenario RCP2.6, the only scenario that does not go above 2.0C.

This calls for emissions to decline from 2020 (at the very latest) and reach zero carbon emissions by 2100 (at the very latest). Incredibly, this only option no-brainer scenario is not on the climate agenda. Note that the IPCC does no make recommendations. 

Tell governments the state of the climate is beyond dangerous interference with the climate system (1992 UN climate convention term)- atmospheric CO2 is the highest in 20 million years. Note the IPCC does make make conclusions on dangerous climate interference.

Tell governments the state of the climate is a global environmental and public health PLANETARY EMERGENCY (James Hansen 2008, 2012) 

"Climate change poses the biggest threat to human health
in the 21st century."
A medical response to climate change has been making its way into medical schools, medical practices and the general medical consciousnesss, as the healthcare profession understands the potentially catastrophic impacts of the climate change emergency on human and population health. A 2011 London conference on the health and security implications of climate change issued a statement calling for urgent action on climate change.

Video of the London conference conclusion 
More conference videos (scroll down page)

In the 16 May 2009 edition of The Lancet, a commission of medical academics from University College London published Managing the health effects of climate change [pdf], a report that outlines why "climate change poses the biggest threat to human health in the 21st century." The commission warns that "climate change risks huge death tolls caused by disease, food and water shortages and poor sanitation." The UCL - Lancet Commission focused on six areas for their report: patterns of disease and mortality, food security, water and sanitation, shelter and human settlements, extreme weather events, and population migration.

The commission urged a medical response to climate change, calling for health leaders to join the debate on mitigation strategies and emphasizing the importance of action. It said that mitigation strategies must focus on health systems, in particular the inequalities between developed and developing nations.

Head of the commission, Dr. Anthony Costello, Institute for Global Health, University College London, said he's been "staggered by the projections about global warming and the potential effects on food security, water, and changing patterns of diseases due to heatwaves and vector-borne infections."

Costello describes the threat as a "clear and present danger" that will affect billions of lives. The impacts will be felt not just in his own country, the UK, he says, "but all around the world — and not just in some distant future but in our lifetimes and those of our children." He believes the health lobby has "come to the issue late and should be saying more."



Global Warming Thermometer

Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century. Effects of climate change on health will affect most populations in the next decades and put the lives and well-being of billions of people at increased risk....

In this report, we have outlined the major threats — both direct and indirect — to global health from climate change through changing patterns of disease, water and food insecurity, vulnerable shelter and human settlements, extreme climatic events, and population growth and migration. Although vector-borne diseases will expand their reach, and death tolls, especially among elderly people, will increase because of heatwaves, the indirect effects of climate change on water, food security, and extreme climatic events are likely to have the biggest effect on global health....

The recognition by governments and electorates that climate change has enormous health implications should assist the advocacy and political change needed to tackle both mitigation and adaptation....
— Dr. Anthony Costello et al, University College London


In the 28 December 2010 episode of Democracy Now, Dr. Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, calls for a medical response to climate change as he warns of its dire public health consequences. As one example, he attributes the doubling and even tripling of childhood asthma rates in the United States in part to climate change, as pollen counts skyrocket in response to the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Epstein warns that warming and extreme weather are putting human beings at greater risk for infectious diseases and respiratory ailments, and are disrupting crops, forests, and marine life.


A climate change message from WHO

Dr. Epstein has said, "Climate change has multiple direct and indirect consequences for human health. Heatwaves are the most direct and are projected to take an increasing toll in developed and underdeveloped nations. The 2003 summer heatwave in Europe, with 35,000 excess deaths in five nations, extensive wildfires and widespread crop failures demonstrates that climate change and the magnitude of its impacts may be surprisingly non-linear.... Advances in climate forecasting and health early warning systems can help catalyze timely, environmentally-friendly public health interventions. If climate change continues to be associated with more volatile and severe weather, we have begun to see the profound consequences climate change can have for public health and the international economy."

According to an American Medical News editorial of 4 April 2011, Confronting health issues of climate change, "The shift in the planet's climate is affecting the health of patients — and physicians are starting to see the results."

The American Medical Association is prompting a medical response to climate change by encouraging physicians to work with their state and local health departments to improve the anticipation and awareness of climate-related health issues within healthcare systems. "The American Medical Association is working to ensure that physicians and others in health care understand the rise in climate-related illnesses and injuries so they can prepare and respond to them." The editorial says that "treating diseases or conditions new to their location — and finding the ones that are growing worse" is part of the challenge to physicians presented by climate change.


Global Warming Thermometer

Climate change is hardly a physician-only concern. However, doctors may find themselves on the front lines in dealing with its serious and immediate problems. Patients are sicker or developing new conditions as a result of changes in the weather. Greater awareness and understanding of the situation, from a medical perspective, is a proper priority.
— American Medical Association



The Australian Medical Association, in December 2009, told its members "The evidence is in — climate change is a serious threat to human health." The AMA suggested that a National Strategy for Health and Climate Change be developed and implemented as a medical response to climate change and to ensure Australia's ability to respond effectively to the health impacts of gradual climate change and extreme events, as well as people's medium to long-term recovery needs. That strategy, they say, should incorporate:

  • localized disaster management plans for specific geographical regions that model potential adverse health outcomes in those areas and incorporate appropriate localised health and medical response measures, including for people who have been evacuated or relocated, temporarily or permanently

  • strong and active communication linkages between hospitals, major medical centres and local weather forecasters and emergency response agencies (in at-risk locations) to maximize timely responses and efficient use of health resources in extreme weather events

  • measures targeted to the needs of certain vulnerable population groups (older citizens, children, indigenous communities, members of remote communities)

  • measures to address health and medical workforce needs in rural and remote communities, particularly in mental health services

  • enhanced awareness among doctors and health professionals of the potential consequences on mental health of extreme weather events and disasters

  • development of effective interventions to address mental health issues arising from extreme events, including those involving mass casualties and from longer-term changes, including drought

  • programs to improve the education and awareness of health professionals about the links between health and climate change, and their understanding of the risks of new vector-borne diseases and their health impacts

  • measures to prevent exotic disease vectors from becoming established and nationally coordinated surveillance for dangerous arboviruses, with public education programs promoting mosquito avoidance and measures to prevent mosquito/arthropod breeding

  • preparedness to deal with the temporary and permanent dislocation of people due to climate-related physical events and economic conditions
Climate Change and Health

These recommendations make even more sense in light of a British Medical Journal editorial published on 5 April 2011, entitled Climate change, ill health, and conflict. In it, two military experts and two medical experts point out that "damage to the fabric of human society is bad for human health," and that this damage can be caused by conflict, by climate change, and by the "threat to collective security and global order" presented by the effects of climate change.

Surgeon rear admiral Lionel Jarvis and Rear admiral Neil Morisetti, of the Ministry of Defence in London, and professors Hugh Montgomery and Ian Gilmore concur with recent reports by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the UK's Ministry of Defence, and the Pentagon's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review to Congress. Climate change has the potential to amplify existing social, political and resource stresses by contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, the weakening of already fragile governments, civil conflicts, food and water scarcity, mass migrations, failed states and global instability. "From such soil is conflict born," they say, and "conflict and poor health feed upon one another."

They agree that: "It might be considered unusual for the medical and military professions to concur. But on this subject we do. Climate change poses an immediate and grave threat, driving ill health and increasing the risk of conflict, such that each feeds on the other. And like all good medicine, prevention is the key."

They conclude with a clear call to action: "Although discussion is good, we can no longer delay implementing tough action that will make a difference, while quibbling over minor uncertainties in climate modelling. Unlike most recent natural disasters, this one is entirely predictable. Doctors, often seen as authoritative, trusted, and independent by their communities, must make their voices heard in calling for such action."


Global Warming Thermometer

Climate change will have an effect on the health and well-being of the populations cared for by practicing physicians. The anticipated medical effects include heat- and cold-related deaths, cardiovascular illnesses, injuries and mental harms from extreme weather events, respiratory illnesses caused by poor air quality, infectious diseases that emanate from contaminated food, water, or spread of disease vectors, the injuries caused by natural disasters, and the mental harm associated with social disruption. Within several years, such medical problems are likely to reach the doorsteps of many physicians. In the face of this reality, physicians should assume their traditional roles as medical professionals, health educators, and community leaders.

Clinicians provide individual health services to patients, some of whom will be especially vulnerable to the emerging health consequences of global warming. Physicians also work in academic medical institutions and hospitals that educate and provide continuing medical education to students, residents, and practitioners. The institutions also produce a measurable carbon footprint. Societies of physicians at national, state, and local levels can choose to use their well-developed avenues of communication to raise awareness of the key issues that are raised by climate change as well as other environmental concerns that have profound implications for human health and well-being.

— Mona Sarfaty, MD and Safiya Abouzaid, PharmD, in The Physician's Response to Climate Change [pdf], Family Medicine, May 2009



Return to Homepage from Medical Response to Climate Change

If this page was helpful, please pass it on. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.