Monday, November 5, 2007

Change is in the air

Even if Brian Schwartz, MD, MS, does have a “hyper-paranoid view of the world” — his words, not this blogger’s — the audience didn’t seem to mind. In fact, it seems the world needs more “hyper-paranoid” outlooks if we’re actually going to do something about climate change, according to speakers at a Monday morning scientific session on “Global Climate Change and the Public Health Community: Mobilizing for Precautionary Action.”

Speaking before a standing room-only crowd, Schwartz talked about what health professionals can do to help change the individual behaviors that impact climate change. There must be dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the next 10 years if we are to prevent the “catastrophic” events scientists predict will happen.

So, where to start? Schwartz recommends we begin by changing our behaviors and lifestyles — that health professionals help to “reconnect this disconnect” between our behavior and its effects on the climate. And health professionals, he said, should begin by serving as role models for their communities.

Schwartz added that Americans trust their doctors above most other professionals, and so that leaves health providers with a wide open opportunity to start a conversation with their patients about how to change their behavior in ways that benefit their health and the climate at the same time. Public health workers are already having these types of health promotion conversations, so how do we begin framing the climate change conversation in the same successful way public health has framed smoking and eating Big Macs, Schwartz asked.

Well, maybe the way is by promoting the numerous co-benefits that people will realize when they begin tweaking their behaviors to lessen their climate change impact, said Howard Frumkin, MD, DrPH, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Environmental Health, who spoke about the public health response to climate change at the session.

For example, driving less not only means less greenhouse gas emissions, it means more physical activity and exercise (exercise is also good for mental health), more social interaction with your community, less car crashes (which drops your injury risk) and less of the harmful emissions that make it harder people with asthma to enjoy the outdoors. Plus, Frumkin said, the actions we must take in the face of climate change are already in line with public health’s core functions: monitoring health, investigating disease, informing and educating the public, developing sound policy and mobilizing support.

And the time is ripe: session presenter Timothy Profeta, JD, MEM, said that after years of working with policy-makers, he’s never been more optimistic that the federal government will begin to act soon on climate change. The United States emits 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and so that means we hold most of the “chips” at the international negotiating table, Profeta said. But until “we get to the table,” he said, “I don’t think anyone else will show their cards.”

What kind of activities do you already do in your everyday public health work that’s connected to climate change? Do you think public health should be at the forefront of the climate change debate?

— K.K.

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