With President Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement, followed quickly by a dangerous sequence of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, it has been a tough year for those of us concerned about climate change and an even tougher year for those millions of people impacted by the devastating consequences of global warming.
This Fall, I have had multiple encounters with patients directly affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. I listened as they told stories of destroyed property and family deaths. As a response, I initiated warm hand-offs with clinical social workers so that my patients could voice their feelings and start to process their losses. I understood when they admitted to me that their diabetes or blood pressure is not at the top of their current list of concerns. In one extreme case, I took care of a patient on the wards whose psychotic break was precipitated by seeing TV images of the devastation brought to her home country of Puerto Rico. On another occasion, I shared the unfortunate news of cancer to a patient who might have been diagnosed earlier had she not been living on the streets of hurricane-ravaged St. Maarten without access to a working hospital.
When I feel discouraged by our current political climate, my Canadian-born significant other reminds me (again) that despite the US government’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, the global community has pledged overwhelming support for action in the face of climate change.
The Lancet Countdown, an international collaboration between 24 academic institutions and governmental organization, tracks progress on health and climate change and provides an independent assessment of the health effects of climate change and the implementation of the Paris Agreement. Their 2017 report was just published, and you can find it here: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(17)32464-9/fulltext.
What is irrefutable is that climate change (and its accompanying extreme weather events) is a critical public health and global health issue that disproportionately affects vulnerable populations who already grapple with issues related to housing, food and water security and poverty.
The Lancet Countdown argues that a comprehensive response to climate change could be “the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.” In the same breath, they propose that health professionals have a responsibility to act as public health advocates “by communicating the threats and opportunities to the public and policy makers and ensuring that climate change is understood as being central to human wellbeing.”
This last point has ignited a fire in me. Up to this point, I have remained idle behind my laptop screen. Instead, as the Lancet Countdown underlines, I have the responsibility to leverage my unique position as a physician to advocate for my patients and others. By doing so, I can join the global response to climate change even if our current administration will not.