Here’s a scenario that likely doesn’t come to mind when you think about the impact of climate change: a coughing child, an inhaler and, then, an emergency room visit.
Just a day after a United States Appeals Court started hearing oral arguments in the case focusing on President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, public health officials warned Wednesday that climate change is more than just pictures of polar bears stranded on ice blocks at sea.
As the Earth warms and the effects of climate change become more acute, so too will the public health impacts including exacerbated asthma, heart issues and strokes, Mary Rice, a pulmonary and critical care physician at Beth Israel Deaconess in Boston said. Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which would mandate cuts to coal-fired power plants to get their emissions down 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, could have a near immediate benefit for public health, Rice said. And the issue is urgent: Doctors are already seeing more patients suffering from illnesses that are likely exacerbated by climate change.
The International Business Times caught up with Rice, who is also an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and the Vice Chair of the American Thoracic Society’s Environmental Health Policy Committee. Here's what she had to say.
Are The Effects Of Climate Change On Public Health Obvious To You As A Physician?
We know that climate change results in a greater frequency of heat waves, for example, and it’s also been clearly demonstrated that we’re having earlier, longer and more intense pollen seasons. They’re starting earlier and they’re lasting longer and they’re more potent. We also know that the frequency and intensity of storms is increasing and the frequency of forest fires is increasing. When any of these things occur – for example during a heat wave – as a doctor who works in the intensive care unit, I certainly care for patients who are affected by extreme heat. I know that as the frequency of heat waves increases people are going to suffer.
In my clinic, I take care of patients with asthma and many of them are very sensitive to the spikes of pollen that we experience here in Boston in the spring and the fall and this makes their asthma attacks worse. It can trigger asthma attacks in people. It’s the difference between somebody who can manage their symptoms with medication at home and somebody who needs to go to the emergency room.
What Are Other Doctors Seeing?
When it comes to doctors, the American Thoracic Society recently conducted a survey of their physician members and they found that a vast majority of our members — who are for the most part doctors taking care of patients with lung disease — reported they’re observing the health effects of their patients.
Specifically they’re noting that their patients are suffering from more intense and longer pollen seasons. Physicians are noting that hurricanes are increasing and that might affect their patients. Some of the doctors affected by forest fires are identifying those events as adversely affecting their patients.
I think doctors are making the connection that climate is changing and they’re seeing that in their patients.
How Strong Is Climate Change Evidence?
What we’re really talking about is changes in frequency and intensity of weather patterns that are not necessarily new but their quality is changing. For that you can’t really rely on an individual storm, you need to look at data and patterns.
The scientific evidence supporting the argument that climate change is happening and our weather patterns are changing is more robust than the scientific evidence that supports many of the things that we do in medicine. When it comes to climate science, the evidence is very strong and it is stronger than the evidence that supports many of the things that we do in medicine every day. That I can say with confidence.
The World Health Organization Recently Released A Report Saying That Just Over 90 Percent Of The World Experiences Excessive Air Pollution — Do You Think That Relates To The Clean Power Plan?
It’s relevant because when we reduce greenhouse gas emissions there are immediate health benefits of reducing other air pollutants that affect human health.
There’s a very strong body of evidence showing that the tiny particles that are released during fossil fuel combustion – fine particulate matter – are associated with higher incidents of asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes. So we can expect that as greenhouse gas emissions form power plants are reduced, emissions of fine particulate matter form those power plants would also go down. You’d expect a lower rate of these kinds of adverse effects for the people in the vicinity of those power plants.
There are certainly studies that have shown when a steel mill closed in Utah the respiratory symptoms of children in that valley went down right away.
What’s At Stake This Week As The Clean Power Plan Gets Reviewed?
I’d be very concerned if the clean power plan did not move forward because that means that we would not be taking any steps to address carbon emissions by power plants in the United States and if we have any hope of avoiding the most catastrophic consequences of climate change we need to take real measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The scientists tell us that if CO2 emissions are not dramatically reduced we are going to continue to see major storms that hurt the health of Americans. We’re going to see more heat waves. There’s also—from a public health standing — when there are major weather events there’s destruction of public health infrastructure and there’s the risk of the spread of communicable diseases like respiratory risks. Those are alarming health risks that we would not be addressing by ignoring CO2 emissions.
I think it’s very important that the subject of human health always be a part of the climate change discussion because it is such an important issue. It affects all of us. I think it’s very unfortunate that climate change has become so politicized when it’s supported by such strong scientific evidence and it is such a serious threat to human health, which is something we all value regardless of our political beliefs.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.