Obama says climate change is threat to human health

Reading time: 4 minutes
9 April 2015

NEW YORK: US President Obama has proclaimed the second week of April as America’s “National Public Health Week”, putting a spotlight on the link between climate change and health.

“America’s public health is deeply tied to the health of our environment,” stated Obama in a public statement. “As our planet becomes more interconnected and our climate continues to warm, we face new threats to our safety and well-being. In the past three decades, the percentage of Americans with asthma has more than doubled, and climate change is putting these individuals and many other vulnerable populations at greater risk of landing in the hospital.”

The White House also highlighted how actions by sub-national governments in the US are succeeding in reducing the impacts of climate change – and therefore protecting their citizens’ health.

“Climate impacts, like more extreme temperatures and storms, can have a significant impact on public health,” says Evan Juska, Head of US Policy, The Climate Group. “And as usual, it’s state, regional and local governments that are taking the lead in finding innovative and pragmatic solutions.

It’s just responsible policy to know what your likely vulnerabilities are, and to begin to take steps to address them.”

President Obama also announced a coalition of deans from 30 medical, public health and nursing schools who are committed to equipping their successors with the knowledge to address the health impacts of climate change.

A scientific link

Science has long recognized climate change as a threat to human health. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report reinforced such a link, concluding with ‘very high confidence’ that “until mid-century, climate change will act mainly by exacerbating health problems that already exist”. IPCC further affirms: “The health of human population is sensitive to shifts in weather patterns and other aspects of climate change.”

Such threat is both direct – heat waves that cause premature deaths – and indirect, such as the changing distribution of some infectious diseases, or impacts on crops.

There is also a very clear, closer threat that we experience every day: air pollution. The World Health Organisation estimates air pollution was responsible for around 7 million deaths worldwide in 2012, related to chronic respiratory and heart diseases.

The US Global Change Research Program has also released a draft assessment outlining the risks of climate disruption for human health and how to mitigate such effects. The assessment is open to public debate, and will hopefully increase the global perception of this complex but concrete threat.

Political momentum

The White House has shared its commitment to take actions to avoid the health impacts of climate change. Obama will host a Climate Change and Public Health Summit later this spring, bringing together academics and health professionals to tackle the issue.

Spurred by the President’s statement, this week, many related conferences and roundtables are also taking place in the US. The discussion will also benefit from the recently updated health-related online datasets Climate Data Initiative, which aims to help communities and local authorities better understand and react to risks.

Climate change is no longer a distant threat,” concluded President Obama in his statement. “Its effects are felt today, and its costs can be measured in human lives.”

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by Ilario D'Amato

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