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

John Watson


April 27, 2017

View From the Front Lines

Some physicians are already involved in combating the health effects of climate change on a daily basis.

"I was treating a child with chronic lung disease who could not stay in her home in Northern California because of the smoke from wildfires," says Robert J. Blount, MD, MAS, an assistant professor at the University of California-San Francisco. "Even though she was living in the country, where you would expect the air pollution level to be really low, she was essentially chased out of her house."

A specialist in both pulmonology and critical care, Dr Blount says that climate change's health impact has fully permeated the medical meetings he attends, with courses on the topic offered to practitioners. He frequently talks to patients about air pollution levels and the risks posed by climate change, issues that aren't theoretical to them but rather real-world risks they must circumvent in order to stay out of the hospital. Not doing so, he seemed to indicate, would risk going beyond personal preference to something closer to dereliction of duty.

"When I became a doctor, I took a pledge to help my patients as best as I can," he says. "If we turn our heads and don't tackle it, I think it's negligence on our part."

Larry Junck, MD, a professor in the department of neurology at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, says the effects of environmental degradation are clear. For several years, Dr Junck has promoted science linking air pollution to an elevated risk for stroke and heart disease.[14,15,16,17]

"This is not something that's futuristic. It's a substantial risk factor ongoing right now," Dr Junck says.

Dr Junck has advocated on behalf of this issue by submitting a resolution to his state medical society promoting solutions to climate change. He supports the so-called "Carbon Fee and Dividend" approach, a market-based climate solution that is based on conservative principles.

Dr Junck chafes at the idea that pollution and climate change have been politicized in our current landscape.

"It is very odd to me that this has become tied with other issues that are on the left-right spectrum," he says. "Certainly it could be regarded as a conservative position to protect what we have got. If you look at the root word 'conserve,' that's what it means."

The question of whether to frame climate change through a political lens weighs heavily on those involved in these latest efforts. Dr Sarfaty, director of the Consortium, is adamant about where her organization should stand.

"This is nonpartisan and doesn't belong in the political box or really in the environmental box either; it belongs in the health box," she says.

The APHA's decades-long involvement in this fight has made Dr Benjamin somewhat more open to the characterization.

"One of the things that public health practitioners learned a long time ago," he says, "is that, frankly, everything can have a political element to it, and that's just the way life is."


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.