Nature and Biodiversity

Why doctors should take the lead in the push to curb climate change

Kyle Plantz
Journalist, The Thomson Reuters Foundation
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Future of Global Health and Healthcare

Doctors should take the lead in supporting political efforts to cut the pace of climate change and encouraging more people to see the problem as a crucial issue for public health, experts say.

With the 68th World Health Assembly coming up in May in Geneva, countries are poised to adopt the world’s first resolution on air pollution and health, in an effort to reduce premature deaths linked to air pollution.

Studies have found that air pollution can worsen a variety of health problems, from heart disease to strokes, said Carlos Dora, coordinator of public health and the environment at the World Health Organization (WHO).

That suggests doctors should take action to try to curb air pollution and climate change, he said.

“Climate change is a big factor (in determining peoples’) health in the short term and doctors should take notice,” he said.

In particular, “there are a number of challenges to the capacities of current health systems to respond to these health issues, so doctors should be prepared”, he said.

For a growing number of doctors, “health and climate change are no longer seen as different issues and are almost seen as synonymous because there is more evidence and data out there that link the two,” he said.

A survey of members of the American Thoracic Society, which represents 15,000 physicians and other medical professionals who work on respiratory disease and related issues, found that the majority were already seeing health effects in patients that they believe are linked to climate change.

Seventy-seven percent of respondents said they have seen an increase in chronic diseases in patients that are linked to air pollution, and 65 percent said they believed climate change was directly relevant to patient care, according to the survey, conducted by the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University and published in the February edition of the journal Annals of the American Thoracic Society.

“There is more pressure for the health sectors to prepare themselves on how they can help the population in dealing with the diseases related to air pollution,” Dora said.

Data sharing

Dora said the resolution that WHO is working on would encourage health systems to have a more proactive response in dealing with health issues related to climate change, for instance by sharing health data about levels and sources of air pollution with other countries and prioritising ways to curb emissions.

Health care providers should reach out and work with other health sectors in other countries to tackle these issues because working on a global scale could help find and implement solutions more quickly, the resolution suggests.

The resolution is currently being negotiated and is expected to be adopted in May at the assembly.

This is not the first time that health and climate experts are encouraging doctors to see health and climate as related issues and to advocate for action on climate change.

A group of military and medical experts published an article in the British Medical Journal in 2008 urging doctors to take a leading role in the highlighting the dangers of climate change, which could lead global security threats and health problems from worsening allergies to injuries from more frequent weather-related disasters.

Today, six of the top 10 polluted cities in the world are in India, with New Delhi topping the list for particulate matter in the air over a year, according to data from WHO. New Delhi’s annual average concentration of particulate matter registered 153 micrograms per cubic metre, with 25 micrograms per cubic metre considered a safe limit by WHO.

Dora said more doctors in India and China, also well-known for its poor air quality, should step up to help tackle climate change and its health impacts in their cities.

“In general, doctors [in India and China] are not very engaged,” he said. But “India is working on getting the doctor’s engagement in climate change responses and preparedness for what could happen in the future.”

Dora said he is optimistic the expected new international resolution on health and climate change could improve preparedness to deal with climate change.

“This resolution will provide the health sector with the equipment, tools, knowledge and capacity to respond to climate-related health issues in their area, while drawing upon resources and ideas from other players,” he said. “There’s still a lot the health systems can do, though, to adapt to climate change.”

This article is published in collaboration with The Thomson Reuters Foundation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Kyle Plantz is a journalist at The Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

Image: A nurse poses for a photo in a trauma center of the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi October 4, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman.

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