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Climate change and health: A snapshot from Stanford Health Policy

Working in communications at Stanford Health Policy, I spend a lot of time reading about health research. But to be honest, much of our research doesn't affect me directly. Breast cancer, statins and Medicare coverage may factor into my life someday, but while I’m still in my 2os and mercifully healthy, I'm somewhat removed from many of the health concerns that affect millions of Americans.

But sometimes, I come across studies that affect everyone -- and, in my view, nothing has a greater health impact than climate change.

In a recent discussion paper (link to .pdf), Katherine Burke and Michele Barry, MD, with the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health, along with former Wellesley College President Diana Chapman Walsh, PhD, described climate change as "the ultimate global health crisis."

They said that climate change will affect human health around the world, in countries rich and poor, but that "...climate disruption is inflicting the greatest suffering on those least responsible for causing it, least equipped to adapt, least able to resist the powerful forces of the status quo.”

While the true crisis is yet to come, many impacts of climate change are already affecting health, as I wrote in a recent piece for Stanford Health Policy.

In Bangladesh, rising sea levels have crept through homes and crops, threatening food and water sources for millions of people.

In sub-Saharan Africa, droughts have left thousands malnourished and have threatened access to nearby, clean water sources.

Even in the United States, air pollution causes 200,000 premature deaths each year, according to a 2013 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In fact, I learned while researching this article that because I grew up in the smog-laden Los Angeles area, I'm more likely to have decreased lung function and to develop respiratory conditions like asthma. That study struck home.

And as climate change progresses, health effects will become more severe.

"I think we are at a critical point right now in terms of mitigating the effects of climate change on health," said Amy Pickering, PhD, a research engineer at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment. "And I don't think that's a priority of the new administration at all."

The Trump administration has suggested withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and repealing the Clean Power Plan. And according to Marshall Burke, PhD, an assistant professor of earth system science, either move would “likely have negative short- and long-run health impacts, both in the U.S. and abroad.”

Taking meaningful steps to curb climate change won't be easy and would require widespread bipartisan commitment. But such collaboration could protect the lives and improve the health of millions, or billions, worldwide, researchers say.

"If ever there was an issue worthy of a leader's best effort, this is the moment, this is the issue," wrote Burke, Barry and Walsh. "Time is short, but it may not be too late to make all the difference."

Previously: Science communication in the current political climate: A Q&A, Genetics of sea creatures: One researcher uses her science training to help the environment and We are woefully unprepared for pandemic threat, says economist Larry Summers
Photo by Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

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