Climate Change and Our Health

No one doubts that our air is more polluted than it was 60 years ago and that mankind is responsible. The people who argue that global warming is not a result of human activities are on the side of free enterprise. They cling to information supplied by a few scientists who provide them with the justification for allowing toxic chemicals to pollute our environment. 

What medical literature is saying…  

We are already seeing an increase of infectious diseases spreading across the world as a result of global warming. Heat waves can lead to heat stroke and dehydration, and are the most common cause of weather-related deaths. So drink lots of water – if there is no drought where you live; get your immunizations up-to-date – if you have access to medical services; make sure you have a good drug plan for antibiotics – if you can afford it; and stay indoors in a cool environment – if there is one.

It is also abundantly clear that pollution significantly contributes to many other adverse health effects in most urban centers. Governments track the numbers of death certificates, visits to emergency departments, and admissions to hospitals, including intensive care units, all of which increase on bad air days. Because of the impact of pollution on health, a daily air quality reading is available on TV weather channels and on the Internet for most municipalities in North America and Europe to advise us of the relative health risks associated with air pollution levels. We are getting better at measuring risk. Unfortunately, the only advice we are given to minimize the impact of outdoor pollution is to be less active outdoors. What about minimizing outdoor pollution?

Industry and transportation are propelling pollution. Pollution is not just causing global warming; it is also causing chronic illness numbers to escalate, and it is increasing mortality.  Many politicians are supporting industry rather than protecting the public.  Unfortunately, people vote for these politicians because they agree with their policies, are unaware of the consequences on their health, or they don’t care.

What politicians are saying: 

According to an October 2009 survey, 75% of Democrats in the U.S. see solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer for the past few decades compared to just 37% of Republicans.  Why should political affiliation make a difference to the acceptance of science?

This past week, more than two dozen U.S. Democrat Senators met in Congress for an entire night. Their intention had been to “wake up” Congress to what is seen as the threat of climate change. Shortly before these senators began, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama stated  that the democrats were misinformed about the threat of global warming. “There has been a lot of exaggeration, there has been a lot of hype,” Sessions said. “It’s time for us to be a bit more cautious and to be less alarmist and to focus more on the science of the situation.” More than 97% of environmental scientists would vehemently disagree with him. This man has a bachelor of arts and a law degree. Where is he getting his data from?

Then there is Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has defended Kentucky’s coal industry from attempts to limit emissions from power plants. Scientists who have researched global warming attest to the link of these emissions to climate change, yet last week, McConnell stated, “For everybody who thinks it’s warming, I can find somebody who thinks it isn’t.” Those somebodies would represent the opinion of just 3% of all scientists.

The conservative think tanks play a critical role in denying the reality and significance of the human contribution to global warming especially by creating uncertainty over climate science.

According to James M. Taylor, a policy analyst at the Heartland Institute, “The Senate Democrats’ Climate Action Task Force are living in the long-ago past…Their stated goal is to call attention to the effects of recent global warming, but there has been no global warming for the past 17 years.”  It is interesting to note that the Heartland Institute is also renown for their work with the tobacco industry, questioning the well established science linking second-hand smoke to health risks, and lobbying against government public health reforms around tobacco.  Should we be trusting James M. Taylor to inform us about the science of global warming?

Mr. Taylor speaks so confidently that global warming does not exist while the World Health Organization states otherwise. Their website says, “human activities – particularly the burning of fossil fuels – have released sufficient quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to trap additional heat in the lower atmosphere and affect the global climate.” “Over the last 25 years, the rate of global warming has accelerated, at over 0.18oC per decade.” What is this doing to our health? 

What the medical community is saying:

There is now a tsunami of scientific evidence reporting that the pollution that causes global warming is also contributing to the increasing numbers of people with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and neurodegenerative disorders (like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s), and lower life expectancy. It is also contributing to the rise in allergies, asthma, poor lung development, and autism in children. Even more alarming is the evidence that gene function is being affected in unborn and newborn children.

Researchers in medicine, toxicology, pharmacology, epidemiology and cellular biology are telling us that the environment is causing changes in patterns of human health.  Are we going to choose to believe politicians who say that there is no global warming or the scientists who say that the same pollution causing global warming has already created changes in human health?

What are we saying?

Conservative politicians want to limit government regulation on private enterprise to boost the economy. And they want to win elections. So those advisors working for conservative think tanks designed to protect and promote industry will continue to feign expertise, finding a handful of scientists to spin the doubt that enables them to deny their responsibility to protect public health and the planet. Some of us will choose to believe them. And what will the rest of us do?  Unfortunately, most people don’t care. Only 36% of Americans see global warming as a serious threat to their own personal way of life. And most people are unaware of the impact of pollution on human health. This needs to change.

In the 1970 movie Network, the newscaster played by Peter Finch is disenchanted with life and electrifies the country, persuading his viewers to shout out their windows “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

It’s time to raise our voices to the decision makers. We need to start the conversation about changing our priorities before it’s too late. We need to “shout it out” too – to whoever will listen.

Political affiliation should not make a difference to the acceptance of science, which is warning humanity to change. But it does. If you want an opinion about your present and future state of health, who are you going to ask: your government representative or your doctor?

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