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Our View: Climate and health

Unity is crucial in our fight against deadly threats of extreme heat, cold and storms

Five million excess deaths per year. The single greatest public health issue facing humankind.

No. It is not COVID-19, although the pandemic has caused 5 million deaths. The “other” excess deaths are those from the increasing frequency of extreme hot (e.g., Portland in July) and cold (Texas in February) weather events.

The public health statement comes from the “Healthy Climate Prescription” (https://healthyclimateletter.net/) from 450 organizations representing more than 45 million health care workers, plus 3,400 others in 102 different nations. It echoes a September editorial published in more than 200 of the world’s leading medical journals, underscoring the threat posed by even another 1 degree Fahrenheit rise in global temperatures. The letter went to heads of state and to the national climate negotiators who meet in Glasgow, Scotland, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12. Their mission is to secure greater resolve from governments and corporations to cut emissions rapidly, as President Joe Biden has pledged to do in the United States.

Already in today’s climate, 5 million annual deaths underestimate the total. Air pollution, mostly coming from the fossil fuel combustion and deforestation that drive climate change, contributes another 7 million. Still more come from floods, hurricanes and other severe climate-related events.

And there is no vaccine for climate change!

Why the tepid response to the climate crisis? When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, killing 2,400 Americans, the U.S. mobilized; World War II ended in less than four years. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon killed fewer than 3,000 in 2001, America again went to war. Every year, climate change kills thousands in our country, more every day than the lives lost in those one-day events.

What about our commitment to public health? In 1952, more than 5,000 Americans died from polio. Some of us senior citizens recall being scared by images of kids our age in iron lungs unable to breathe on their own. And when a vaccine became available in the middle of the baby boom, our mothers flocked with us to get shots. Immunization worked; polio rapidly died out.

One answer to the questions about public health and climate change is the same: partisan politics. When foreign adversaries attacked the U.S., we responded, though with less unanimity in 2001 than in 1941. The challenge with climate change and with vaccination programs is what Pogo said in an Earth Day poster in 1970, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” But in 1970, Americans of both parties rallied behind landmark environmental legislation.

Partisanship has built controversy over seemingly obvious public health efforts, such as wearing masks to protect one another from a dangerous infectious disease. Yet, more than 100 years ago, Justice John Harlan wrote for the Supreme Court, “Real liberty for all could not exist” if people could act “regardless of the injury that may be done to others.”

Partisanship also has made climate change – a threat to all of civilization – a similarly divisive issue. In the prescription offered by the World Health Organization to address climate change (https://bit.ly/3nBPlfS), the first recommendation is to commit to a healthy recovery, including aligning health and climate goals and supporting a fossil fuel-free recovery. Fulfillment of Biden’s pledge in Glasgow depends on passage of critical measures to address such a healthy recovery. However, the bill is stymied in Congress by an unbroken wall of Republican opposition and the key climate elements appear doomed by the opposition of a single Democratic senator from a fossil fuel state.

No wonder so many young people report being depressed. Earth is burning, and the “grown-ups” are fiddling so that we can keep up business as usual.

Is business as usual suicidal? Or is it murderous?