We need to change the way we talk about climate change

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There was a point in my life when the words “climate change” would recall pictures of polar bears marooned on precarious chunks of ice, bobbing aimlessly in some foreign landscape of tundra and sea. While tragic, the environmental drama playing out at such extreme latitudes always felt like an abstraction, particularly to a kid growing up in temperate Colorado.

Today, however, as I study medicine and the environmental factors that influence human health, climate change is a daily reality. For me, climate change calls to mind a blue-lipped child struggling for air, her asthma incited by the wildfire smoke that too often drifts through the Front Range towards the plain. The term summons thoughts of the countless families afflicted by emotional trauma after losing their most prized possessions, entire farms and even loved ones in the fires, droughts, and floods that seem to afflict our communities with ever greater violence. Unfortunately, these examples are not fantasies, as such scenes already occur in clinics and emergency rooms in Colorado — and across the country — today.

For anyone with an ounce of humanity, such images are enough to draw attention and arouse the sensibilities, irrespective of whether one votes red or blue. That is why we, as medical and public health professionals, must articulate the link between climate change and its effects on health for the general public. After all, it is high time that we come to a collective understanding that climate change is not a political issue — it is an existential one.

Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released an alarming report (SR1.5) authored by over 800 scientists that detailed the perils of an Earth 1.5 ˚C warmer than pre-industrial times. The IPCC’s admonishments caused a fleeting stir in major newsrooms, but quickly receded into the background.

Weeks elapsed. Paradise burned. A prominent science skeptic issued some rather rakish commentary on forest management. Forensic investigators in California were still sifting through the ashes for casualties of the state’s most recent climate disaster when the 4th National Climate Assessment (NCA) report captured headlines. Published on Black Friday (which may have attenuated the resulting fanfare), the product of 13 federal agencies largely corroborates the findings of the IPCC: with continued “business as usual” polluting habits, our forecast for the future ranges from very bad to apocalyptic.

Finally, the annual Lancet Countdown on health and climate change was released to the public. It concludes that we are not progressing quickly enough to curb our emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, nor are we constructing the necessary bulwarks against the emerging threats to human health at a pace commensurate with current climate projections.

With three chilling reports in less than two months, we ought to see the proverbial writing on the wall: Climate change is happening now, our behaviors are driving it, it is hurting us — and it will hurt us more if we fail to correct our habits. Nevertheless, I fear that these consensus findings will once again fade from the forefront of the public conscious. I fear our political environment, which so often seems committed to inertia and inaction. And I fear that from inside the academy we are not reaching people, that the science is not translating into action and as a consequence that we are not effecting the changes we need to ensure that our children inherit from us a world worth living in.

Yet, I still believe there is cause for hope. Both the IPCC report and the NCA leave us a few years for quick and aggressive action, and the Lancet report details the expansive public health benefits of “no-regret” mitigation and adaptation strategies. In order to bring such visions to fruition, climate change — and our contribution to it — needs to occupy a central and perhaps uncomfortable place in our public discourse. It needs to inform our daily decision making, from what we eat to how we move to who we vote for. How do we get there?

To start, we need to change the way we talk about climate change. I began this piece with a limited illustration of how climate change can affect health — though many of us may lack an affinity for polar bears, we human beings still pay attention to human suffering, particularly when it occurs close to home.

Unfortunately, there continues to be a paucity of coverage from high-impact news outlets explicitly linking climate change and health. As experts in health and trusted voices in the community, medical and public health professionals must play a leading role in communicating the health risks of climate change, as well as the health co-benefits of mitigation and adaptation campaigns.

Meanwhile, climate change will continue to kill Americans in floods, in fires, in violent storms. It will usher in hotter days and worse air quality, which, in turn, will land the vulnerable among us in emergency departments and intensive care units. And it will make us sick in subtler ways: by accelerating underlying health problems, by expanding the reach of vector-borne diseases, by hurting workers and the economy, by stressing our infrastructure, by facilitating malnutrition and by threatening the community bonds that confer resilience and gird us against mental illness. The extent of these consequences will depend on how avidly we work to mitigate climate change and adapt our systems for the adversities to come. The avidity with which we work relies on our common understanding that climate change affects us all here and now.

Fortunately, it is not too late to change course. Not yet. Climate change is indelibly linked to human health and well-being. Once we understand this as a society, we can finally focus public attention on the urgent need to curtail global emissions and adapt for the climatological effects that we can no longer prevent. With swift incremental action and stalwart will, we can avert the worst and minimize the human costs we incur. No matter what, we — all of us — will foot the bill.

Jacob A. Fox is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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