Despite increasingly dire statistics showing how the current climate crisis, if left unchecked, will damage the health of a child born today throughout their lifespan, two Yale School of Public Health experts are urging people not to get discouraged and to continue to fight for a healthier planet.
An unprecedented challenge demands an unprecedented response and everyone’s help is needed now, more than ever, the pair told a standing-room-only gathering of students and faculty at the School of Public Health on Thursday (November 21).
Professor Robert Dubrow, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Yale Climate Change and Health Initiative, and Associate Professor Jodi Sherman, M.D., a YCCHI-affiliated faculty member, are co-authors on a major new report documenting the health consequences associated with unabated greenhouse gas emissions.
They outlined the results in a lunchtime presentation as part of a national launch of the landmark 2019 report: The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change. YSPH was one of three regional launch sites nationally and Dubrow and Sherman were among the report’s 69 co-authors.
The report’s findings are daunting, especially for children:
- If we continue down our current path, a child born today will live through a world that is over four degrees centigrade warmer, with a changing environment threatening the food they eat, the air they breathe and the communities they live in.
- Air pollution, already dangerously high in more than 90 percent of cities, will worsen and further damage children’s hearts and lungs from the moment they take their first breath.
- As they grow, food insecurity will rise, with children among the worst affected by the malnutrition and stunted growth that comes from crop failure in a more volatile climate.
- Throughout their adult lives, they will experience more heatwaves, stronger storms and the spread of infectious disease. They will see climate change intensify mass migration, extreme poverty and mental illness.
Sherman discussed an aspect of the climate crisis that is not often highlighted in climate reports —the health care industry’s impact on climate.
“Every time I take care of a patient, I suffer a moral injury because I know I’m causing indirect harm through the pollution I’m generating,” said Sherman, an internationally recognized researcher in the emerging field of sustainability in clinical care. “So, I feel motivated to try to help clean up the health care industry.”
Health care is a massive, resource- and energy-intensive industry, Sherman said. Besides the huge amounts of energy consumed by the drug and medical equipment manufacturing process, hospitals — due to their elaborate devices and need to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, — have 2.5 times the energy intensity of comparable sized commercial buildings.
Sherman’s earlier work with Lancet co-author Matthew Eckelman, an Associate Professor at Northeastern University and YSPH adjunct professor, demonstrated that the U.S. health care sector contributed nearly 10 percent of our national greenhouse gas emissions in 2013. If the U.S. health care sector were a country, it would rank 13th in the world for greenhouse gas emissions, more than the United Kingdom, she said. In the latest Lancet report, they found that the global healthcare sector contributed 4.6% of total global emissions in 2016. Per capita, US health care emissions are substantially higher than those of any other country and rose steadily over the Lancet study period 2007-2016.
Dr. Nick Watts, executive director of The Lancet Countdown and the 2019 report’s lead author, joined the discussion remotely from London. Watts emphasized the importance of this year’s findings and the need for immediate action across all countries to ensure a better future for our children.
One pathway to action is to challenge the “business-as-usual” approach, which is allowing high carbon emissions and climate change temperature to continue at their current rate, Dubrow said.
A global response that limits the average global temperature rise to “well below 2°C” (the Paris Agreement goal) is possible and would transform the health of a child born today for the better throughout their lifetime, Dubrow said, citing one of the report’s key messages.
“Pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy, so it’s really morally imperative that we be optimistic about achieving this” Dubrow told the gathering. “And there are some reasons for optimism. Solar and wind power are actually happening. They’re becoming economically competitive. Transition to renewable energy is possible.”
Dubrow praised those in the United States who have pledged to remain committed to the Paris Agreement despite the declaration of the U.S. government to withdraw from the pact next year. Ten states, 280 cities and counties, 348 colleges and universities, 28 health organizations and countless others have pledged to continue to work toward the agreement’s goals, Dubrow said.
Action is happening on multiple fronts, Dubrow continued. New York City last year divested its entire $189 billion pension fund from fossil fuels. The Juliana vs. U.S. climate lawsuit, where 21 young people are suing the United States to do more about climate change, is still being pursued in the courts; and young people around the world are rising up as part of international climate strikes and other climate actions.
“To me that’s the most hopeful thing of all,” Dubrow said. “Young people understand their future is at stake and people are rising to the occasion.”
The YSPH Lancet Countdown presentation can be viewed via Livestream at yale.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=5941be81-15bf-421d-9612-aaf801098b76
Read the Lancet’s full report at http://www.lancetcountdown.org/.
Learn more about the Yale School of Public Health’s Climate Change and Health Initiative at https://publichealth.yale.edu/climate/.