ZeroHour-4-5-6892,” Mark Dixon

June 25, 2019; Colorlines

A declaration signed by scores of leading US medical and health groups, including the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, and the American Association of Public Health—a total of 74 groups in all—sets forth that high public health costs are to be expected from continued global heating and issues a call for action.

The six-page letter, titled US Call to Action on Climate, Health And Equity: A Policy Action Agenda, labels the climate crisis “a true public health emergency” in its very first sentence. Later on, the letter warns that, “Without transformational action, climate change will be increasingly severe, leading to more illness, injury, and death; mass migration and violent conflict; and worsening health inequities.”

Half of the declaration contains of six “priority action policy recommendations.” These, however, do not break much new ground. As Ayana Bird explains in Colorlines, these include support of the Paris agreement, “using renewable energy in place of coal, oil and natural gas; implementing zero-carbon transportation systems; promoting sustainable farms and food systems; making clean, safe drinking water available for all people; and adopting policies that support communities and workers who have been adversely impacted by climate change.”

More far-reaching are the last four areas of recommendations, which focus on health-related actions. Because of who is signing the letter, these are areas where the signers have direct influence. These recommendations are:

  • engage the health sector voice in the call for climate action
  • incorporate climate solutions into all health care and public health systems
  • build resilient communities in the face of climate change
  • invest in climate and health

For example, under the “engage the health sector voice” area, the report recommends implementing “local and national campaigns, using lessons from public health campaigns such as tobacco control, to inform about…the health benefits of climate action.”

In incorporating climate solutions into health care and public health systems, the report calls for: a) integrating climate crisis-relevant information into public health programs; b) establishing “public private task force to assess the current state of the nation’s health care system resilience to extreme weather and recommend strategies and investments to improve it”; c) implementing climate-friendly policies in core practices (e.g., water use, energy use, waste management) of US health care facilities; d) develop low-carbon health care delivery models (everything from community clinics to telemedicine); and e) develop curriculum to prepare health care workers to lead in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

In terms of resiliency, the report calls for “deeply engaging communities most impacted by climate change” in decision-making and planning—and more broadly, for employing a health equity lens throughout. The resiliency section further calls for dedicating “adequate planning and funding to protect all communities from the adverse health impacts of climate change, including robust heat island mitigation; expansion of tree canopy, green space, and green infrastructure; cool roofs and cool pavements; rainwater and gray water capture; strategies to reduce the occurrence and impacts of catastrophic wildfires and floods; community preparedness and resilience training; and increased availability of climate-adapted housing.”

Lastly, the report focuses on making investments to protect health amidst the climate crisis in two areas: 1) support for local and state health departments and a resilient hospital infrastructure; and 2) funding and implementing “national, state and local climate-health risk assessments, expanded disease surveillance systems, early warning systems, and research on climate and health that enable an effective health response to climate threats.”

In their declaration, the writers note that, “This is a crucial moment. We need to ratchet-up commitments to climate action and accelerate action to protect our health and that of future generations.” The authors conclude by voicing an optimistic vision that, “With the right policies and investments today, we have the opportunity to realize our vision of healthy people in healthy places on a healthy planet.”—Steve Dubb