[by Dr. Maureen McCue]
During a recent train ride returning from a family visit in Southern California, I couldn’t help observing the stark differences between the appearance of the unprecedented drought in the southwest, and the intense rain storms here in the Midwest. Another phenomenon readily apparent from the train is the extreme inequality among members of the U.S. population. I found myself musing about the difficulties of surviving the exceptional heat and drought or exceptional rain and storms for those dwelling in the tiny, ramshackle, run down properties visible all along thousands of miles of train track. The obvious hard lives they represented contrasted starkly with large comfortable well-appointed homes visible on hillsides further from the tracks.
These observations underscored words Pope Francis so eloquently asserted in his Climate Change Encyclical, Laudato Si: On the Care of our Common Home.
“The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation.”
Two related releases, the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change: Policy Responses to Protect Public Health, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report, “Climate Change in the United States: Benefits of Global Action,” combined provide the most comprehensive analysis to date on the economic, health and environmental risks to the United States and the world of global climate inaction. They convincingly assert, without addressing current social and economic arrangements, as the globe continues to heat, we can expect many more premature deaths and increased suffering from the unraveling of our life sustaining climate. In fact, The Lancet authors note that climate change is progressing more rapidly than predicted by the most pessimistic IPCC forecasts, writing that “effects of climate change are being felt today, and future projections represent an unacceptably high and potentially catastrophic risk to health.”
As a doctor and professor in global health, I regularly perceive how health and safety is threatened by the increasing number of extreme weather events here in the U.S.; I’m also acutely aware of the deaths due to heat in India and Pakistan, storm related deaths in the Philippines and elsewhere. The combination of such reports and my observations make the frailty and vulnerability of so many members of the human family painfully clear.
Fully 99 percent of the world’s scientists conclude that climate change is occurring and it is man made. What’s urgently needed now is the social and political will to act on common-sense policies to both mitigate the forces driving climate change and adapt our communities to the new, warmer, reality.
To change the view from the train, we must get busy making the changes needed for social and climate health. Actions that mitigate the effects of climate change — low-cost active transportation, increasing green space, energy efficiency, and local agriculture — will also give immediate public health benefits. As asserted in all these powerful documents, tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century. It could also finally help lead to the kind of economic relationships that lifts so many now living at the mercy of powerful heat, droughts and storms.
~ Maureen McCue is coordinator for Iowa Physicians for Social Responsibility.