Q&A with Physicians for Social Responsibility
change is real; it is happening now, and it is one of the gravest threats to
the public’s health that we will face this century. Catherine Thomasson, MD, Executive Director of EarthShare member
charity Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) answered our questions
about the health impacts of climate change:
Why should health professionals care about
change is impacting health! Heat waves
and elevated levels of air pollution (ozone) are already harming our health and
we expect a minimum temperature increase of 3-5◦C by 2100 or 5-10◦F
with little change in our output. Four
out of five Americans have been victims of an extreme weather event in the last
ten years, losing homes and jobs. Tornadoes, thunderstorms, and droughts
resulting in a loss of crops and price hikes on many food items last summer
impacted the health of children whose parents can’t afford food. Water supplies
are also at significant risk. Epidemics of dengue fever, the increasing range
of Lyme disease and other insect borne diseases are occurring more due to
milder winters and hotter summers.
What is PSR doing on this issue?
brings the message of health threats due to climate change to our policymakers,
to medical associations, and to the public.
We advocate closing polluting coal-burning power plants. We study the
health impacts of hydraulic fracturing and bring health professionals to our
legislatures and governors calling for a ban until and if this practice can be
done without fouling our air, our groundwater and releasing high levels of
methane, a very potent greenhouse gas.
We also call for solutions such as increasing energy efficiency to
reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and to develop healthy sources of
electricity such as solar, wind and geothermal.
Our voice is
heard in city councils and state legislatures through our 31 chapters and at
the federal level at the EPA, Capitol Hill and the president’s office.
There we also advocate for preparation or adaptation to the known impacts of
What specific health (or other) impacts
from climate change have you seen in your own region? / What makes this issue
personal to you?
have friends who were stranded in hospitals during Hurricane Katrina and in New
York City during Hurricane Sandy. It is horrifying to think
about caring for and evacuating intensive care patients in the dark because the
hospitals were not prepared for the intensity of the storms. These events are increasing in severity.
What do medical associations (AMA, ANA,
etc.) say about climate change?
the American Medical Association and the American Nursing Association acknowledge
the consensus of the scientific community on climate change caused by humankind
primarily from burning fossil fuels. They call on all providers to speak to
patients and educate their communities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and
to prepare for higher temperatures and sea level as well as extreme weather
Is human-caused climate change widely
accepted by individuals in the medical community?
not! In a review article written by a
PSR member, there were many letters received denouncing the journal for
covering the issue.
What is your opinion of the “Human Health”
section of the new National Climate Assessment, released in January 2013?
will be making every effort to share this very concise and well-documented
information with the public and health professionals in efforts to spur
preparation and mitigation of future effects.
In a fact-based document such as this, it is hard to convey or
measure the health impacts of storms such as Sandy and Katrina which are
overwhelming to families who lost everything or are trying to repair when
foundations are waterlogged and overrun with mold.
Are hospitals and medical professionals
preparing for climate change? How?
hospitals have joined an organization called Practice Greenhealth and have signed
on to the climate challenge, which requires building improvements and educating
on climate change. They are recycling, installing energy efficient features,
improving their heating systems and installing solar panels. Some hospital
systems are educating their staff and communities to prepare for extreme
weather and take action to reduce the severity of climate change. Others, along
with some cities or counties are doing nothing. It is these people we need to
What can communities do to adapt to the
health impacts of climate change?
health professionals are educating and working with some cities and counties
who recognize the need to prepare for the changes such as a 3 to 5 degree
Fahrenheit increase, or a sea level rise of over two feet in the coming 50 years. Communities can bolster their public health
system to add warning systems and preparations for heat waves and extreme weather,
and evaluate the water shortages that will occur. Well-prepared cities and
counties have climate change plans which take health into consideration.
What are the health benefits to addressing climate change?
health or co-benefits of cutting fossil fuels are myriad. Burning fossil fuels causes a majority of our
air and water pollution. The secondary benefits of reducing coal, oil, gasoline
and natural gas use will provide cleaner air and water. Cutting red meat from our diets reduces
methane production and will reduce heart disease and environmental degradation
from beef production.
What gives you hope?
are addressing climate change and preparing for impacts are becoming more
resilient to all kinds of threats. They
are often increasing pride and cooperation across city and county government,
business and social entities. Buildings
that are more energy efficient are better places to work, with more natural
sunlight, better insulation and show improved productivity and fewer sick days.
I also am very hopeful that we have a
president who is speaking out on the issue and I hope there will be more market
incentives to make the changes we need!
To learn more about PSR's climate change program, follow their blog here. Be sure to read our article on the health impacts of climate change too.