Addressing Green Matters at the White House: A Climate Change Discussion

Patricia Finn, MD
  Patricia W. Finn, MD

Beyond the threats to human life posed by extreme weather, the health effects of a planet that is getting relentlessly hotter are already taking their toll on vulnerable populations every day. This is the message I tried to convey during a White House meeting in June that was coincidentally scheduled for the day President Obama announced his plan to address global warming.

Valerie Jarrett, the president's lead advisor on environmental issues, convened the meeting with a half dozen medical and health groups, including the ATS, the National Association of County and City Health Officials, the American Lung Association, the Children's National Medical Center, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, and the March of Dimes, and with climate change experts on her staff.

In welcoming us, Ms. Jarrett said that she looked to the ATS and the other organizations to identify and support the development of the best science to inform the discussion about the public health policy needed to meet a complex global problem.

The meeting was originally scheduled for 30 minutes but went a full hour as representatives of the invited organizations spoke urgently about the challenges we face from our different perspective of the health problems posed by an overheated planet.

When it was my turn to speak, I focused on three issues and tried to emphasize that, like me, many of the clinicians in the Society are already seeing the effects of climate change in their patients:

Climate and pollen. Climate change is creating earlier, longer, and more intense pollen seasons. Research has shown that pollen season is beginning about a day earlier at the equator and about 23 days earlier in northern climates. Increased carbon dioxide concentrations are also yielding more intense allergenic pollen blooms.

Climate and heat spikes and premature mortality. Recent heat spikes in cities around the world have resulted in premature deaths. While heat-spike related deaths are infrequent, it is important to note that these deaths were not among those expected to die soon under normal conditions. They were among people whose primary risk factor was the extreme heat they experienced.

Climate and air pollution. Rising temperatures are raising surface ozone levels and driving up particulate matter pollution. The research on the adverse health effects of both these effects is as compelling as it is robust.

Of course, there is more that can be said about the health effects of rising temperatures around the globe. For instance, the recent ATS workshop report Climate Change and Human Health notes that researchers have found that climate change is indirectly responsible for increasing infectious respiratory diseases in some parts of the world as a result of climate-forced migration and of malnutrition resulting from breaches to a safe supply of food and water.

Like most environmental issues, the burden of our ever-hotter planet is falling disproportionately on the very young, the very old, and the frail. It is also falling on those who live in countries without adequate resources to cope with famine or the aftermath of a hurricane.

In the United States, people who struggle to survive financially are more likely to live in the inner city where surface ozone and particulate matter are already high, work outdoors, inhabit houses laced with mold and other environmental toxins left in the wake of extreme weather, and live without air conditioning.

Although the ATS workshop report highlights areas for further study about the effects of climate change and the best ways to ameliorate its devastating effects, is it clear that countries everywhere must curtail the burning of fossil fuels. Towards that end, President Obama announced during his speech the same day that he was directing the Environmental Protection Agency to “put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants, and complete new pollution standards for both new and existing power plants.”

This was the president's No. 1 priority for reducing U.S. greenhouse gases. While the best way to do this lies outside the expertise of the ATS, we support this effort. We have to: all of us who work with patients and who work in laboratories to end respiratory disease know that the current trajectory of the Earth's temperature will lead to a worldwide health crisis.

By telling the president's advisors what the research, much of it conducted by ATS members, shows and by relating some of the experiences of my patients, I believe I spoke for all ATS members in support of efforts to halt a pernicious phenomenon. I hope, as you have opportunities to do so, that you will speak out, as advocates for patients, about the need to address climate change.