As leaders of leading physician organizations in Washington state, including support from the Washington Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Washington Academy of Family Physicians, we publicly supported Gov. Jay Inslee’s and the Washington state Legislature’s recent policy success to transition our state to a 100% carbon-free electricity grid. This is an important step in addressing climate change — the most significant public-health challenge of the 21st century and a challenge that will, if left unchecked, adversely impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
But this step is only the first in what needs to be a multifaceted, collaborative approach to tackling the human contributions to global warming, warming that causes wide-ranging impacts on the health of Washington state communities. As doctors, we already see direct health impacts in our practices. The rapid warming of our planet adversely affects human health through heat waves, air pollution, infections transmitted by insects, extreme weather, food availability and water quality. In the Pacific Northwest, increasing wildfires cause serious air pollution that lead to lung problems, heart attacks and strokes, which in turn lead to expensive hospitalizations and even death.
Simultaneously, transmission of mosquito-borne illnesses, such as West Nile virus, has increased. Asthma, related to longer allergen seasons and spreading ragweed, is also on the rise. Combine all these worsening health concerns with extreme weather events, and we have the potential for real catastrophe — locally and globally. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates there will be 1 billion climate refugees worldwide by the end of this century if we do not act to interrupt global warming.
Physicians are trained as scientists, and the science is clear. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen to unprecedented levels, surging to 415 parts per million, higher than at any point in millions of years. This contributes to our rapidly warming planet. Our planet’s “fever” disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable in our communities — children, the elderly, those with multiple health problems and those with limited resources to seek relief including many in rural areas of Washington state. Due to their developing lungs and brains, young children are disproportionately affected by polluted air and climate change. We need to ensure children can breathe clean air where they live, learn and play. We have a moral responsibility to protect the most vulnerable among us.
Transitioning to a carbon-free electricity grid is only part of what needs to be done. We have a critical window to accelerate our transition away from human activities that contribute to greenhouse gasses or we will face catastrophic health consequences. Embracing a comprehensive approach to address climate change by reducing our reliance on the combustion engine, improving the energy efficiency of the buildings we use, and addressing the carbon footprint of our food systems turns out to be good for both Earth and our health.
A multifaceted plan to address global warming not only has the direct benefits of reducing serious health problems such as heat stroke and exacerbations of lung disease but also helps us live healthier lives overall. Reducing reliance on automobiles by using public transportation and walking or biking to work increases physical activity with the attendant health benefits including lower rates of obesity. Eating a diet with more fruits, vegetables and grains, and less meat (particularly red meat such as beef), is also good for our health in many ways — from lowering the risk of heart disease to lowering the risk of colon cancer.
The bottom line is that addressing climate change is the public-health opportunity of this century. If we care about the health of the citizens of our state, taking further action is imperative. To get there, we will need more education, more partnerships and more effort from everyone. Let’s build on the success of committing our state to a carbon-free electricity grid by taking the next steps now to tackle climate change and ensure the good health of our citizens today and tomorrow.