Global Warming is a Public Health Nightmare
Environmental health pioneer Gary Cohen says increased rates of asthma, infectious disease, and water contamination are about the hazard faced by the global community
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network, in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown.
As the global temperatures rise, so do the impacts on human health. Here’s a video from NASA that shows the progression of changing global surface temperature anomalies, from 1880, through 2016. Now, earth’s surface temperatures last year were the warmest since modern record keeping began in 1880, according to independent analysis by NASA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, otherwise known as NOAA.
Now, current policies in place around the world are projected to result in about a 3.6 degree Celsius warming above pre-industrial levels, according to the independent scientific organization, known as Climate Action Tracker, that assesses currently implemented international policy, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
What role does the healthcare sector have to play, in not only mitigating the health impacts from climate change, but also helping communities to adapt to a warmer world?
Well, to discuss these issues, we’re joined by Gary Cohen. Who has been a pioneer in the environmental health movement for 30 years. He has helped build coalitions, and networks globally, to address the environmental health impacts, related to toxic chemical exposure, and climate change.
Gary is the co-founder and president of Healthcare Without Harm, and Practice Greenhealth. In 2015, Cohen was named as a MacArthur Fellow, and was the recipient of a Genius Grant, from the MacArthur Foundation. Gary is joining us today from Boston.
Gary, welcome to The Real News Network.
GARY COHEN: Thanks for having me.
KIM BROWN: Gary, last week you were one of the speakers at the Climate and Health Conference, presented by former Vice President, Al Gore’s organization, the Climate Reality Project, in partnership with the American Public Health Association, and the Harvard Global Health Institute. The event was organized in the wake of the Center for Disease Control, canceling a similar event.
Health professionals are clearly seeing the link between climate change and human health impacts. Is the current climate change trajectory potentially devastating to public health, in your opinion, and can healthcare help communities to adapt to a warmer world?
GARY COHEN: At a broad level, the kind of changes that we’re seeing, as a result of climate change, will have profound negative impacts on everybody on the planet. We’ve never really faced, as a global civilization, this level of public health threat. The Lancet, commissioned in the UK, which is a very prominent health journal, has called climate change the greatest public health threat of the 21st century.
What do they mean by that? They mean that the increasing temperatures around the planet will lead to a broad set of health impacts, that will impact everyone, everything from increasing temperatures, will add to asthma rates all around the world and increase the severity of allergies, of things like poison ivy. By having warmer temperatures, it will make it more difficult for people to work for many, many hour’s outdoors. People that are more vulnerable, the young, the elderly, are going to be much more likely to succumb from heat stress, and heat stroke.
Because of warming temperatures, there’ll be mosquitoes that are able to travel to warmer climates, so the kind of diseases, infectious diseases that we’re concerned about -– malaria, dengue fever, Zika virus -– all those diseases will spread to climates that they’ve never been before. And in addition, sea level rise will inundate many cities along the coast, as well as many cities along rivers. So, that increases flooding, and that increases the likelihood of water contamination, with sewage, which increases the likelihood of water-borne diseases, like cholera, like diarrhea.
So, I mean, it’s profound, the kind of changes that we could be seeing, if we don’t control our greenhouse gas emissions, and our addiction to fossil fuels.
KIM BROWN: It’s been established that the fossil fuel industry didn’t take a leaf out of the tobacco industry’s playbook, in terms of false marketing and deception to the public, but in fact the other way around.
So, are we at a moment where healthcare professionals can look at tobacco’s war on public health to make a case against fossil fuels?
GARY COHEN: Well, there are some interesting dimensions to that. Some of the same public relations firms that worked for the tobacco industry, and then the chemical industry, and then the fossil fuel industry are the same industries that have used, essentially, similar tactics to try to confuse the public about these issues. In the context of climate change, they’ve been called, “Merchants of Doubt.”
So, by getting, “independent scientists” to stand up saying, “Well, we’re not really sure about climate change. We probably need to study it some more. There’s a lot of debate about that.” But it creates doubt in the public’s mind, that we’re not… we need to really study this more before we act. Whereas, the reality is, that 97% of all scientists around the world agree that climate change is real. It’s human-caused, it’s bad for people’s health, and we need to do something about it immediately.
So, there’s that aspect. The other is that the way that we observed, the way that the healthcare sector and health leaders stood up to the tobacco industry, and the kind of changes that they made, we’re seeing a similar trajectory in, around climate change and fossil fuel. The Surgeon General, in 1964 said tobacco smoke was dangerous for your health. And that created a whole cascade of opportunities to begin to engage the health sector, in getting doctors and nurses to talk about tobacco as being dangerous.
That led ultimately to starting to ban tobacco from clinics and hospitals. It led hospitals to divest from tobacco companies, saying this is against our mission, our healing mission, and so we shouldn’t be investing in tobacco. It led to litigation that showed that the tobacco industry had been lying about the dangers of their products. That that created a big fund of money, that then fuelled the public health sector to education millions and millions of people about the dangers of tobacco. And, of course, second-hand smoke led to further restrictions, in schools and restaurants and airplanes and many, may other places.
And so, if you take that broader playbook, and say, “Well, where are we at on that trajectory with fossil fuels?” The Surgeon General came out in the last couple of years, and talked about climate change as a public health threat. There’s been a number of high level U.S. and World Health Organization summits on climate change and health. We’ve been –- and others –- have been educating the health profession, about the links between climate change and health, and getting them to start to educate their patients.
Hospitals, on their own measures, are beginning to reduce their own reliance on fossil fuels, and starting to invest in more renewable and distributed energy, for their own facilities. There’s been a number of healthcare organizations, systems that have divested from fossil fuels, a number of medical associations have divested from fossil fuels.
There’s a lawsuit that three Attorneys Generals now have brought against Exxon, saying that they knew about climate change, and its devastating impact. And they lied about it, and they withheld that information, and continued to fund climate denial for many, many years. So, that is a similar trajectory.
There are a lot of parallels between the healthcare sector getting engaged around tobacco, and the healthcare sector getting now engaged around climate change.
KIM BROWN: The new fossil fuel friendly head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, and President Trump, are rumored to be poised to gut federal regulations to protect clean air from greenhouse gases and other chemical pollutants, and clean water from industrial waste, with the argument that these regulations have negatively impacted businesses and the economy.
But, if one factors in the financial cost of the health impacts, does that argument break down?
GARY COHEN: The argument breaks down at a number of levels. One is, they talk about these regulations on coal plants, and clean water protections, as being job-killers. The reality is, that there’ve been more jobs created in the last several years in the renewable industry, than jobs created in the fossil fuel industry. And these jobs don’t come with any of the negative health impacts related to fossil fuels. Whether it’s water contamination from fracking, or enormous public health air pollution issues from coal.
So, that’s one place where the argument breaks down, and there’s a whole broad set of companies in this country, and around the world, that are saying, “Yes, we understand that climate change is real, and we’re developing strategies to address our own climate footprint. As well as understand our supply chain, so that we can operate in this new reality.”
That’s one thing. The other thing is, that when we look at the price of electricity, all of the public health and environmental costs of fossil fuels are externalized. In other words, they’re not in price per kilowatt-hour. So, all of the asthma cases, all the extreme weather events, all the heart disease, all the strokes, all the allergies, all the flooding, all of that damage is not in the price of oil. It’s not in the price of natural gas.
And so, the only way that we can think of those fuel sources as being competitive, is if you ignore the massive public health, and environmental cost, of our reliance on fossil fuels.
KIM BROWN: Gary, can you discuss the importance of making hospitals being resilient, and resistant, to the impacts of climate change? And how does this go beyond any notion of partisan politics?
GARY COHEN: We learned in a number of climate-related disasters –- Hurricane Katrina, Super-Storm Sandy, in New York — that the healthcare infrastructure of a city is critical to address those emergencies. There’s a medical emergency, many people are stranded, many people get injured; it’s a crisis for the city.
What’s happened in those two examples, and many others, is because we haven’t designed for climate change, our facilities, many healthcare facilities fail. They get flooded. The electrical equipment is in the basement. There’s no backup generators that work. There’s no ongoing way to generate electricity, if the grid is down in the city. So, several hospitals in New Orleans were evacuated in the midst of this crisis. When people needed them the most, they were evacuated, same thing in New York City.
And so, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, or a red state or a blue state, we need our healthcare infrastructure to be the last building standing, in a climate-related emergency. They need to be able to care for the sick; they need to be a place where people can go to get their cell phones charged. They need to be the place where maybe there’s clean water available, because there’s flooding… there’s water contamination throughout the city. These are real, immediate needs that come forward in a kind of emergency like that.
So, we’ve been working with the Department of Heath and Human Services to develop a framework, and a toolkit, so that we can bring climate resilience and preparedness to the healthcare sector. So that, everywhere around the country, the hospitals are prepared, clinics are prepared, to withstand these extreme weather events, but also that they can pre-emptively educate their members, their clients, about what they should be doing to prepare for themselves.
So, if we know it’s going to be… there’s going to be 40 days in the summer where it’s 90 degrees and above, in extreme heat waves, we can target the people who are most vulnerable, and provide for them, whether that might be air conditioners, or cooling rooms which they can go to, or ways of accompanying them through these disasters. Healthcare needs to adapt itself to these really new realities of what the changing nature of disease is going to be, in this climate-stressed world.
KIM BROWN: Finally, we’re seeing a clamp down on science, particularly climate science, under this current administration, and the U.S. Congress. Gary, tell us why it is crucial that we don’t censor scientists, and that we support our scientific organizations.
GARY COHEN: Well, imagine if we were… you know, imagine this, in our country, one in three women will get cancer, and one in two men will get cancer. We have an epidemic of cancer in our society. Imagine if the federal government and the scientific establishment said, “You know what? Cancer doesn’t really exist. We’re going to stop funding cancer, we’re not going to acknowledge cancer, we’re not going to talk about cancer. We’re going to hound cancer researchers out of our federal institutions.” It’s an absurdity to think about that.
And yet, that kind of political witch-hunt is starting to happen with the Trump Administration. Where they’re trying to clamp down more information coming out about the realities of climate change, and its impact on our environment, its impact on our health. And so, it requires courage, and great fortitude, for scientists to stick their neck out, and to continue to do the critical work that needs to be done, to educate the public about climate change.
Because, I think one of the key takeaways from that conference last year… last week, in Atlanta, that the American Public Health Association put on with the Climate Reality Project, is the following two things: one, is that the most important way to educate the public about climate change is to talk about health, the things that matter to them, their health, the health of their families and friends, and the health of their communities.
And two, is the most important messengers for that information are health messengers, our health professionals. So, especially in this climate, where we’re starting to see a kind of fossil fuel fascism rise, we need the health professionals to step up, and to educate the public, about the realities of climate change, and its impact on their health.
280 million Americans have some touch point with health professionals each year. We need an army of health professionals that are educating the public about these issues, and countervailing against the fossil fuel industry, and their agents in government, that are trying to deny the truth.
KIM BROWN: We’ve been joined today by Gary Cohen. He is the co-founder and president of Healthcare Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth. He is also a MacArthur Fellow, and was a recipient of the Genius Grant from the MacArthur Foundation.
Gary, we appreciate you joining us today. Thank you. And thank you for watching…
GARY COHEN: Okay…
KIM BROWN: …The Real News Network.