An inconvenient medical truth

Global warming can create serious health problems unless we act now.

By Riley Brian

With the start of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21), environmentalists, journalists, and policymakers turn their eyes to Le Bourget, France, anticipating a plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions and curb warming. As medical students, we too turn our eyes to Le Bourget. The approaching negotiations will have a profound impact on human health, and as a result, on our futures as clinicians.

Projections from the World Health Organization, World Bank, and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest that climate change will affect billions of people and present a major public health crisis in the coming decades. Reports from The Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change have echoed these concerns, concluding that climate change is the “biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”

Many of the health impacts of climate change are direct. Warming can increase transmission rates and broaden ranges of vector-borne diseases like malaria, dengue fever, tick-borne encephalitis, Lyme disease, and schistosomiasis. With malaria, for example, higher temperatures allow the parasite to mature exponentially more rapidly. Even with modest warming, tens of millions more people will be exposed to malaria. Notably, dengue fever stands to spread even more widely than malaria. Increased humidity and mosquito prevalence may put billions more at risk for contracting the virus.

Climate change also has a direct impact on the extremity of weather events. Droughts, heat waves, floods, and storms all stand to increase in severity and frequency. Without major changes to our energy system, the new norm will include “unprecedented” disasters time and again. These events may lead to acute medical problems that can be especially devastating to developing health systems.

The indirect consequences of climate change on health are less obvious but perhaps of even greater importance. A warming planet spells a range of health problems resulting from an unstable food and water supply, massive migratory upheavals, increased armed conflict, and other disruptions to the essential infrastructure of society. Climate change threatens basic human needs, risking the stability required for good health.

As medical students and future physicians, we will spend much of our time and this nation’s resources treating and managing diseases already affecting our patients. The cost-effective and lifesaving power of preventive medicine reminds us that taking action early in the course of a disease often allows for greater quality of life at a reduced cost. Our perspective on climate change should be the same. With catastrophe looming on the horizon, we need to take action as soon as possible.

If no substantial agreement emerges at COP 21, we will continue down a path that forces us to reactively treat the consequences of our short-sighted actions. But, if we instead forge a comprehensive emissions reduction plan, we have the opportunity to prevent climate change from defining the next generation of medicine.

Riley Brian, Cheyenne Smith and Andrew Wilmington are first-years at the Pritzker School of Medicine.