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Blogs from DC: Climate Change and Health at the White House

By Dr. Alice Chen

This is part of a new blog series sharing goings on in the Nation’s Capitol with doctors, medical students, and interested parties around the country.

Today, Doctors for America was invited to the White House to attend a forum on climate change and its current and future impacts on health.  It coincided with their release of a new report, "Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment."

The event was an eye-opener even for me, an environmentalist since the fifth grade when I first learned about the impacts we were having on the planet and our responsibility to be better stewards of it for future generations.  

What I learned today was climate change is not only about polar bears and national parks, it’s about people getting sick and dying . . . not in thirty years, but today.  And particularly the most vulnerable people that Doctors for America has been working to help every day.  

The event was opened by Robert Simon and John Holdren from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Gina McCarthy, EPA administrator -- framing the launch of this groundbreaking report that for the first time draws very specific connections between climate change and many many health impacts.

The first panel was expert scientists largely from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  They highlighted a few of the important findings from their scientific modeling:

  • Extreme weather events will increase and disproportionately impact the most vulnerable.  As they said this, I recalled the NICU babies at NYU being transferred out of a powerless hospital during Superstorm Sandy.  I remembered standing outside the fenced off Charity Hospital in New Orleans in 2010 years after it was shut down by Katrina. I thought about patients being unable to get their medications, go to dialysis, or have enough food to prevent a diabetic patient from getting hypoglycemic.  

  • More floods mean more food-borne illnesses. They also mean more mold, which means worse asthma especially for those who can’t afford to remove the mold.

  • Heat will kill more people than will be saved by warmer winters. Fewer people will freeze, but many more people will die from heat in the summer.  I started picturing my frailest poorest patients home alone getting hotter and hotter, more and more dehydrated, and finally succumbing.  It's hard to imagine in our climate controlled hospitals, but this is reality for people who cannot afford to have air conditioners in their homes..

  • Vector-borne diseases. Lyme disease will move northward and start earlier in the year.   We will see more varied tropical disease showing up in the U.S.

  • Shell-fish and vibrio. More shellfish will be exposed to vibrio, so more people will get sick.

  • Mental health. Anything that impacts your health and the health of people you care about will impact your mental health. Extreme weather events exacerbate PTSD, depression, anxiety. 44 million people a year have mental illness.  

Human impact on the planet is making survival of the fittest hardest for the very old and very young, the sick, the poor.  Our most vulnerable patients.  The ones we try hardest to protect.

It turns out that climate change makes social determinants of health even worse for everyone but especially those who have the least..  

Now what can we do about this all?  How do we both address the root causes of climate change and help our patients and communities be more resilient in the face of a changing planet?

For a high level view on this question, we heard from Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts.  He was pretty pleased with the all-star Massachusetts team working on this - EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy,Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy John Holdren, and Secretary of State John Kerry.

He emphasized that today's report shows that climate change impact on health is much worse than we thought.  A sick planet will impact the health of people.  

Senator Markey is now working on legislation to fund programs to train medical and public health professionals, fund research, and come up with a comprehensive plan.  We have to come up with a treatment plan for the planet, he said.  We need clean energy, low-energy vehicles, and shared solutions and political will with the rest of the planet.  The political climate is contentious, but we have to look back on this time and know that we tried.  

The next panel was moderated by Linda Birnbaum of the National Institute of Environment Health Science and included non-government leaders from the American Lung Association, the Center for Public Service Communications, the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, and the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Here are some key notes on what we can do with the new report and what is already happening:

  • Use data to help parents understand impacts of air pollution: A panelist shared a story of a mom of three kids with severe asthma.  She was at her wits end, until her doctor told her to move away from the polluted air.  They picked up their lives and moved to another state.  Today, the kids are thriving, playing soccer, even playing the saxophone at Carnegie Hall.  Not every family has resources to do that, but knowledge helped this family.  

  • What can health care providers do?  Health care providers need to be educated.  They can educate others and urge policymakers to reduce climate change and fund research so we know how best to address the health impacts.  The panelists also gave a shout out to many hospitals that are working hard to reduce their footprint through the Healthy Hospitals Initiative.

  • What should health professional and public health schools do?  Educate students on the facts and how to apply it, conduct research on how to prepare communities and model policy options, work with communities around them.

  • What should departments of public health do?  Everything in public health is impacted by environment. Engage with the true front lines in communities with the information in this report, like working with forecasters to help with reduce heat problems in public workers.  

  • How to reach communities like indigenous communities and other minorities?  Need to make the information relatable to minorities and underserved communities.  Nurture and mentor leaders from within the community.  Need to incorporate the needs, voices, cultures, and languages of urban and rural minorities.

  • Teaching climate literacy in middle and high school.  This must be done to help people be better prepared for civic participation on what's happening and spark interest in STEM fields.  

  • How do we balance mitigating and adapting to climate change?  What’s the bottom line?

    • It's critical for people to know effects are happening right now.

    • It's not only polar bears - it's clean air to breathe, not being flooded, avoiding disease.  

    • It's clear we have to mitigate worsening climate change and adapt to what’s already happened.

After the panel, the closing speaker was Doctors for America's former president and co-founder, our nation’s 19th Surgeon General Vivek Murthy!  He shared stories of caring for patients with respiratory illnesses -- and that so many of our patients say that being unable to breathe is the scariest thing to experience. We have an opportunity to prevent that from happening. He also shared inspiring words about the urgency of acting now, about our American values of being responsible for one another, and of our capacity to face this challenge and overcome it.

Doctors for America has not yet as a movement spoken up about climate change because it felt less directly relevant to a physician’s experience than a patient having no health insurance.  But today’s event and this new report have definitely opened my eyes to the urgency of doctors getting educated and speaking up about the impact of climate right now on the health and lives of our patients.

Read the report at, share it with your friends, and let us know your ideas for what we can do by emailing

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