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

John Watson


April 27, 2017

Making the Case

Dr Sarfaty has been studying public perception surrounding climate change for nearly a decade as director of the program for climate and health at George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication in Fairfax, Virginia. It was in this role that she and her colleagues asked a relatively simple question: Were physicians seeing the impact of climate change in their practices?

The results were compelling, with surveys of a geographically diverse group of doctors from three medical societies (American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology; American Thoracic Society; National Medical Association) indicating that two thirds of the over 2000 respondents did indeed see its direct impact.[3,4,5] The most commonly identified areas were increases in chronic disease from air pollution (76%), allergic symptoms from exposure to plants or mold (63%), and injuries resulting from severe weather (57%).[1]

These clinicians' perceptions match up with the scientific consensus. The exacerbation of preexisting cardiopulmonary disease is considered among the most well-established human consequences of climate change.[6] The main air pollutants that cause global warming have a clear association with worsening lung function, increased chronic obstructive disease, spikes in all-cause mortality, and various other adverse effects.[6] Aided by warming temperatures, the prevalence of the global burden of allergic disease has notably increased for more than 50 years,[7] due in part to a US pollen season now approximately 2 weeks longer than it was in 1995.[8] Global warming sets off a complex cascade that affects everything from soil temperatures to planetary waves, with a resulting spike in extreme weather events ranging from heatwaves to massive precipitation.[9]

Figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show a rapid succession of billion-dollar disasters and extreme weather events in the United States for the first quarter of 2017, on pace for the near-record number experienced from coast to coast in 2016. A systematic review of studies looking at the impact of extreme weather events in the developing world, where populations are particularly vulnerable, shows a consistent increase over reference data for outcomes like direct injuries and long-term post-traumatic stress disorder (up to 37% and 52% higher, respectively).[10]

This merely skims the surface. It was with this in mind that Dr Sarfaty and her colleagues from the Consortium created a report highlighting specific risks and featuring the personal stories of doctors involved in their treatment. It bubbles over with alarming data points. For example, because of increasing temperatures, the tick that carries Lyme disease can now be found in nearly half of US counties,[11] the report states, and visits to the ER for heat illnesses have increased 133% in the period from 1997 to 2006.[12] The Consortium's website hosts other educational tools, such as peer-reviewed studies and fact sheets, all of which are meant to arm clinicians with the latest information.


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