President Obama launches effort to highlight health costs of climate change

Hurricane Sandy flooded New York City and caused blackouts along the US East Coast. Creative Commons: David Shankbone, 2012

Hurricane Sandy flooded New York City and caused blackouts along the US East Coast. Creative Commons: David Shankbone, 2012

The White House launched a new initiative linking climate change and public health on Tuesday, offering further justification of the Obama administration’s recent moves to cut carbon pollution.

In a push corresponding with National Public Health Week, the White House announced comprehensive set of actions related to climate change and health. The launch kicked off at Howard University in Washington, DC with a roundtable discussion that featured President Obama, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Gina McCarthy, and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.

The White House said it plans to hold a summit on climate change and health later this spring, and also announced that deans from 30 medical, public health, and nursing schools have promised to include climate change preparedness in educational curricula.

As part of the push, the Climate Data Initiative will be expanded, with some of the world’s biggest companies already committed to using the newly available data. Google announced it will donate 10 million hours of advanced computing time in order to create climate change risk maps, while Microsoft plans to use drone technology to build a system that will provide early warnings about infectious diseases spread by worsening global warming.

These announcements are intended to communicate the urgency of adapting to climate change, which is already impacting public health in the United States and abroad.

“The president has been consistently focused on the fact that no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change,” said Brian Deese, a senior adviser to President Obama. “But this is not just a future threat. This is a present threat,” he added.

According to a recent survey, three-quarters of medical professionals said they have seen an increase in chronic diseases related to air pollution, and more than half said they have also seen injuries related to severe weather.

Extreme weather events have ushered climate change into the spotlight in recent years. Hurricane Sandy provided a preview of what more severe Atlantic storms could look like, while California’s ongoing, historic drought has put farmers out of business and sent shockwaves across the United States in the form of higher food prices.

Extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan can result in severe damage to property, and increased incidence of carbon monoxide poisoning, intestinal and stomach illness, and mental health impacts like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Climate change is also causing health problems is less obviously dramatic ways. Warming global temperatures are sending more allergens into the air, while changes wrought to ecosystems by global warming is contributing to the spread of infectious diseases like malaria into new regions.

Since climate change is overwhelming due to the burning of fossil fuels, taking action to cut carbon pollution will also have manifold benefits for health. In the US, the percentage of Americans with asthma has more than doubled in just three decades. Health experts say that reducing reliance on dirty coal would contribute to reversing this trend and would help prevent respiratory illness and premature death.

Shortly after the launch of the initiative, nearly 1,000 medical professionals sent a letter to President Obama urging him to safeguard health and maintain a safe climate for generations to come by continuing to support strong cuts to carbon pollution from power plants, scaling up renewable energy sources, and opposing unconventional gas extraction.

Earlier this year, the US pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels within a decade. According to an analysis conducted by the NewClimate Institute, the main elements of this plan will significantly cut air pollution and will prevent roughly 7,000 premature deaths each year. If the US set itself on a path toward an economy that is powered by 100% renewable energy by 2050, it would make even bigger health gains—preventing the deaths of around 27,000 people per year.

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Quick Facts on Public Health

  • Heat is already the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States, with more than 6,300 deaths resulting from exposure to extremely hot weather between 1979 and 2006.  >> EPA, 2010

  • High temperatures raise the levels of ozone and other pollutants in the air, exacerbating cardiovascular and respiratory disease. Urban air pollution causes about 1.2 million deaths each year.  >> World Health Organization, 2010