Mark Mitchell, NMA

Mark Mitchell (left), co-chair of the National Medical Association’s environmental health task force, speaks at a news conference in Washington, D.C., about research findings on effects of climate change on health. Photo by Daniel Greenberg/APHA

How is climate change affecting the U.S. today? According to hundreds of doctors from the National Medical Association, it already causes great harm to their patients.

At a press event yesterday in Washington, D.C., medical and public health experts, as well as patients, discussed the immediate impact of climate change — and an opportunity to bring the conversation into health care.

“Most people don’t know a climate scientist, so when 97 percent of climate scientists say that climate change  is happening — if you’re not really that tuned into science — that may not influence you,” said APHA member Mona Sarfaty, director of George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication program for climate and health.

“But most people know a doctor. So we are trying to assess what physicians know about climate change.”

According to the data, most physicians are seeing that their patients are experiencing injuries due to severe weather, air pollution-related increases in severity of chronic disease, increased allergic symptoms and heat-related effects. Findings from the 303 NMA physicians surveyed included:

  • 86 percent said that climate change has harmed people in their own city or county over the last decade, with 61 percent saying that climate change has affected the health of their own patients.
  • 86 percent said that people living near or below the poverty line will be disproportionately affected by climate change, along with 83 percent of young children ages 0-4 and 80 percent of adults over age 60;
  • 78 percent said that their own actions, personally and professionally, can contribute to effective action on climate change.

Jocelynne Nolan, 18, discussed how the “bipolar” climate of Atlanta changed her life. Months after moving from Indiana, the former five-sport athlete “all of a sudden couldn’t breathe, out of the blue.” After being rushed to a pediatrician Nolan was diagnosed with asthma and subsequently forced to give up athletics.

Nolan said that the extreme temperatures worsen her asthma symptoms, because “with asthma you need time to adjust. [In Atlanta] you can wake up in the morning and it’ll be freezing cold and once you go take a lunch break at work, it’s hot, or vice versa.”

She added: “To sit there and have to think about breathing, it is not normal. Something should and needs to be done.”

The study was also presented in a Capitol Hill briefing yesterday, exactly one year after U.S. President Barack Obama released his “Climate Action Plan” to prepare Americans for the impacts of climate change and reduce carbon pollution.

“This issue has often been defined as a theoretical discussion, but the theory is over,” said Georges Benjamin, MD, executive director of APHA. “We need to support efforts to address climate change now. This survey tells me that our health is at stake.”