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Why we should care that climate change is making us sick

Environmental changes are making people sick and urgent action is needed, Paul Auerbach and Jay Lemery write in the new book "Enviromedics."

Stanford’s Paul Auerbach, MD, doesn’t have much interest in debating whether climate change is real. To him and Jay Lemery, MD, his co-author on a recent book, what matters is what they both know from practicing medicine: Environmental changes around the world are making people sick and urgent action is needed.

In their new book, Lemery, an associate professor of emergency medicine and chief of wilderness and environmental medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, and Auerbach, a professor of emergency medicine and a leading authority on wilderness medicine, lay out “our inventory of adverse health impacts” of environmental change on human health.

The book, Enviromedics: The Impact of Climate Change on Human Health, also serves as a vehicle for calling on physicians to lead the way in raising awareness of the problems they see every day in their practices. We published excerpts from the book in the recent Stanford Medicine magazine.

The authors discuss composite patients whose stories mirror those of many patients they and others have treated who are suffering from conditions that are made worse by such environmental events as wildfires, floods, hurricanes and more.

A man they call Sid suffers from severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, and is near death when he arrives at the ER by ambulance. He rallies that day, only to face the same dilemma again and again. Eventually, though, he can’t be saved. Lemery and Auerbach use Sid’s story to compare the devastating impact of cigarettes on one man’s health with the impacts of climate change on human health around the globe:

Why should Sid’s predicament concern us and be instructive? The reason is that if we continue to foul our environment, more people on the margin of poor health may be impacted adversely. That is logical. … In the same way that no health harm can ensue because of enforcing a world without cigarette smoke, no harm to our health can come from crafting a future that preserves our life-sustaining resources.

Earth is our only option for existence. If we ignore it, more of us will edge closer to disaster. The metaphorical cigarette Sid smoked could be one more industrial chimney spewing smoke, one more coral reef decimated, or a steady rise in average global temperature. We urge our readers to become educated, form personal opinions, and, in turn, urge our industrial-political complex to take action.

Earth will go on, no matter what we do to it. The more pertinent question is, will we?

Previously: The effects of climate change on human health — and what to do about them, Climate change and health: A snapshot from Stanford Health Policy and Science communication in the current political climate: A Q&A
Illustration by Greg Clarke

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