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Health Leaders Urge Congress to Take U.N. Climate Report Seriously

A warning sign posted alerts visitors of heat dangers in Death Valley National Park, California.

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Key Takeaways

  • Major health groups penned a letter to Congress, demanding greenhouse gas emissions be halved by 2030.
  • The authors said climate change is a "health emergency" that requires immediate actions.
  • Additional investments should be made in underserved communities where health is disproportionately impacted by climate change, the leaders urged.

Sixty health organizations on Monday urged Congress to prioritize legislation aimed at reducing greenhouse, saying climate change “is a health emergency.”

The collective letter follows a sweeping report published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which spells out the already irreversible impacts of climate change and a potentially dire future if drastic action isn’t taken to slow greenhouse emissions.

Health leaders called on U.S. legislators to adopt immediate measures to reduce negative health outcomes associated with worsening air pollution and other effects of climate change.

“Investing in infrastructure is an opportunity to protect health from climate change – particularly for underserved communities – that Congress and the nation can't afford to miss,” the authors wrote.

The previous IPCC report was published in 2014. It had stated that the world needed to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius to reign in climate change, setting the precedent for the Paris Agreement.

In the latest report, the working group said that the world will likely reach or exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming within the next two decades, with serious ramifications for communities globally.

It is against this backdrop that the health organizations urged U.S. legislators to prioritize infrastructure that supports clean energy goals as they consider packages such as the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan.

“Congress’ current work on legislation to invest in infrastructure and other priorities must yield a package of climate change measures that meet the urgency of this moment by achieving a roughly 50% reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2030,” the letter said.

The health groups advised that Congress should create a plan for all electricity to be from renewable sources by 2035 and to dramatically decrease the use of natural gas and coal in favor of wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal energy. These efforts should be coupled with tax incentives for clean electricity, energy storage, and transmission.

Georges Benjamin, MD, MPH, executive director of the American Public Health Association, says that these infrastructure investments may seem costly, the potential savings in health care and human life are worth it, he says.

“We want Congress to know that we're paying attention,” Benjamin tells Verywell. “They can call on us to support them when they're having to make these kinds of tough calls.”

Climate Change and Public Health

With intensified climate change can come various health risks. For instance, heat waves can rapidly evaporate water, causing larger storms. Resulting floods may displace people from their homes, usher in harmful black mold infestations, and spread pollutants into drinking water.

Poor air quality is particularly harmful to sensitive groups like children, seniors, pregnant people, individuals with respiratory illnesses, and those who are exposed for a long time outside.

The health groups said that persistent emissions from sources like vehicles and industry are both polluting the air and driving climate change, causing intensified wildfires which further dirty the air.

Investing in electric-vehicle manufacturing and zero-emission transition for school bus fleet could temper pollution in areas with the poorest air quality, the letter said. Old diesel school buses on average emit twice as much contaminants per mile as the average trailer trucker and they are being replaced with financial incentives from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Benjamin adds that urgent action to limit emissions and purify the air can have positive initial effects.

“The health implications of these have a long tail,” Benjamin says. “While you can get some immediate improvement in things like air quality, the long-term impact in terms of cancer, heart disease and those things tends to take a while.”

Addressing Health Inequities

Manifestations of climate change, such as heavily polluted air and severe weather, most drastically affect the health of underserved communities. Communities of color, which have long contended with racist policies and practices, are more likely to have pre-existing health conditions and face environmental risks that make them vulnerable to climate change, the authors said.

The letter called for at least 40% of investments in clean air to be allocated toward communities that are most severely affected by pollution.

Robin Cooper, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, says negative environmental impacts are linked to higher rates of depression, suicide, and other adverse mental health effects.

She is on the steering committee at Climate Psychiatry Alliance, a signatory of the letter and an organization which advocates for mental health wellness for people impacted by climate change and ecoanxiety.

“It is very, very clear that we are all going to suffer but we are not going to suffer equally,” Cooper tells Verywell.

But rather than get bogged down in pessimism, Cooper says it’s important to continue advocating for climate-friendly policies, for the sake of current and future generations’ physical and mental health. 

“We have to continue to use as much power and leverage as we can,” Cooper says. “Climate change is already going to happen. But how severely it happens depends on what we do now.”

What This Means For You

Working together to curb greenhouse gas emissions can help limit the effects of climate change globally, experts say. You can look to your local public health department for guidance on how to manage the health effects of severe weather or air pollution in your area.

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  1. Union of Concerned Scientists. School Bus Pollution Report Card 2006. Updated May 23, 2006.