Georges Benjamin and Vivek MurthyClimate change is already causing serious harm to human health in the U.S., and policymakers need to take action, according to a new policy brief from a group of global experts. They shared “The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change: Policy Brief for the United States of America,” on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 18. 

The brief, which highlights the threats and opportunities that climate change poses for U.S. health, is based on a global assessment released earlier this month by The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change commission.

The Lancet report is among a growing body of scientific research that shows just how serious a threat climate change is for our health,” said Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, former U.S. surgeon general, during the event, pictured here with Georges C. Benjamin, MD, APHA executive director.

Now in its fifth year, the global assessment tracks progress across 41 key indicators, demonstrating what action — or inaction — on meeting targets established in the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change means for human health. 

The U.S. brief, co-produced by APHA, details health effects that are already taking place, such as deaths from air pollution. Worker productivity is falling because of extreme heat, and more seniors are being exposed to heat waves. People who are already vulnerable to health threats, such as children, are at particular risk from climate change, the brief says.

“There are actions we can take, and they do matter,” said Alice Chen, MD, former executive director of Doctors for America, at the event. “It is in our power to protect a child from having an asthma attack, a pregnant woman from having a complication, an older relative from heat stroke. We all have a stake in this.”

The brief shares recommendations for U.S. policymakers, calling for:

• rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions beyond Paris agreement commitments;
• rapid transition away from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy; 
• investment in active transportation infrastructure to support biking and walking;
• investment in evidence and monitoring to guide health protection strategies; and
• increased resiliency of public health and health care systems from climate-related disruptions.

A major threat to progress in addressing climate change in the U.S. is the Trump administration’s plans to remove the nation from the Paris agreement. On Nov. 4, the U.S. Department of State began formal procedures to remove the U.S. from commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

The withdrawal, which was condemned by APHA, would take effect in November 2020. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, criticized the decision during the Hill event, noting that the U.S. should not shirk its responsibility. 

“No matter what we do today, rising global temperatures will continue to have an effect on our economy and, most important, our health,” Johnson said. “It’s not a mystery what we need to do, but rather do we have the courage to do it.” 

Even as policymakers discuss what needs to be done, climate threats march on in the U.S., the brief notes. For example, U.S. energy-related carbon emissions rose by 2.8% in 2018, the biggest increase since 2010. The brief called for scaling up renewable energy technology to lower the nation’s carbon emissions. 

Renee Salas, MD, MPH, MS, one of the lead authors of the brief, noted that health professionals have an important role to play in addressing climate change. She urged health care professionals to be trusted messengers on climate and health.

“Patients may not know what triggers their symptoms,” Salas said during the event.  “I believe it’s my ethical duty to make the connections between climate change and health for them. Climate skeptics may not listen to the WHO, climate scientists or the U.N., but they’ll listen to their primary care physicians and nurses.”

Closing out the program, Benjamin said, "Fires and floods on TV haven't helped people connect the dots between climate change and health. We must find a way to make this a water cooler issue, a kitchen table issue. We all have to care."

For more information on climate change, visit the APHA website.