Injury and drowning from worsening storm surges and flooding. Smoke inhalation and burns from wildfires. More severe and frequent heat stroke and heat-related illness. Spread of infectious diseases. Worsening anxiety and depression. These are just a few of the ways in which climate change impacts human health.
Climate change is driven by the burning of fossil fuels. A recent study found that pollution from fossil fuels was responsible for 20% of premature deaths internationally in 2018—that’s one in every five people who died early.
The climate crisis is a health emergency for all people, and especially for our children and future generations.
Each of us—parents, grandparents, teachers, students, health professionals, bus drivers, executives—has a role to play, but we must act together, collectively. In order to avert the worst impacts of climate change and the health disasters that await our future generations, we must take these key steps now:
Start local and look around you. Do you live near a major interstate where diesel truck pollution is making kids sick? Are there refineries, drill sites, or coal plants nearby? What is the air quality in your state? To read more about how climate change affects the health of individuals and communities, check out these resources.
Understand that climate change is a systems-level issue. Our social and economic structures are built on burning fossil fuels, yet the fossil fuel industry’s interests are not aligned with those of our health or future. In my home state of California, the fossil fuel industry spent $10 million in 2020 alone lobbying our legislators and governor. The United States, and many other countries, subsidize fossil fuels heavily, obscuring their true cost. We are rapidly approaching a time when renewable energy is more economically viable than fossil fuels, but our collective action is needed to advocate for this systems-level change.
Find your group… don’t go it alone. Are you a mother? Check out Mothers Out Front. A medical student? Try Medical Students for a Sustainable Future. A clinician? The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health coaches individual state clinician groups. And visit the Sunrise Movement and 350.org, both of which have local chapters connected to larger national hubs. And there are many more!
Determine what levers you have to pull in the system. Are you an alumnus of a university that’s invested in fossil fuels? Does your child’s school include climate change in its curriculum? Does your town or city have plans to electrify its grid and transition off fossil fuels? Are you involved in anti-racism work? It’s time to speak up! Air pollution and climate change disproportionately impact communities of color. Climate justice is racial justice.
And finally, you don’t need to know everything in order to do something. Talk about what you do know and what you see. Focus on kids, health, and equity.
The climate crisis is overwhelming, but there is reason to have hope. Let’s engage in collective, systems-level action. Action is the antidote to fear. Our kids—your kids—are waiting. Let’s go!
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Amanda Millstein, MD, is a primary care pediatrician in Richmond, California, and co-founder of Climate Health Now. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Human Biology and her Medical Degree from Stanford University.