Organized Medicine Takes on Climate Change, but Not All Docs Agree

John Watson


April 27, 2017

For years, environmentalists have struggled with how to make climate change's consequences resonate. Dire projections of rivers washing into lower Manhattan, drought-stricken Midwestern plains, and scorching southern heat waves had the benefit of robust climate modeling data, but their full brunt wasn't expected to be felt for years or even decades.

"People see this as something that maybe affects polar bears or people in foreign countries," says Mona Sarfaty, MD, MPH, director of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate Change and Health, a group representing 12 medical societies whose approximately 450,000 members account for nearly half of practicing US physicians. "But the truth is that there are probably already people in their family or people they know in their community who are being affected."

This past March, the Consortium issued an overview of health risks resulting from ongoing environmental degradation.[1] It came a year after the publication of a high-profile policy paper from the American College of Physicians (ACP) that explicitly asked physicians to take a direct role in combating climate change.[2]

These and other groups hope that by marshaling the considerable influence of organized medicine, they can awaken the public to how a warming globe is contributing to health problems in ways both common, such as prolonged allergy seasons, and potentially devastating, such as increasing outbreaks of infectious diseases like Zika. Yet, critics of these endeavors see them as the latest instance of medical societies doing something they never would with patients—namely, offering prescriptions based on limited or flawed information.

"Physicians can tell society what to do about the climate only if we know what the health consequences of collective action or inaction will be," says Thomas S. Huddle, MD, PhD, a professor of medicine at the University of Alabama School of Medicine in Birmingham. He added that anything beyond that would be emblematic of physicians' grandiose tendency to, paraphrasing the famed bioethicist Dr Edmund Pellegrino, "continually conceive their mission in an expansive way that seems to cover more and more realms of human activity."


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