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Paul Potvin is a senior member of the Maine Medical Association and a member of its public health committee.
We all have one. That box where we lock away some awareness of the problem and the known solutions. Psychologists call it compartmentalization — a defense mechanism used to block out traumatic events, or to suppress the uncomfortable emotions we feel when our behaviors are at odds with our knowledge and values. Stuff it in some far off corner of our minds, and go on with our lives. The problem is that the box keeps getting heavier with each new report or climate event and keeping it locked up is killing us in more ways than one.
Let’s start with basic science. When fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas — are burned, carbon dioxide is produced. It accumulates high up in the atmosphere where it acts like the glass roof in a greenhouse. It traps the sun’s heat and energy and reflects it back to earth. The result is rapidly rising temperatures. The levels of this heat trapping gas are the highest in millions of years, skyrocketing since the dawn of industrialization.
The higher temperatures are affecting our health causing more heat stroke and related illnesses, more exposure to disease-carrying ticks and mosquitos, worsening lung and cardiovascular disease, injury and deaths from severe weather events, forced migration from drought, sea level rise and wildfires, greater food insecurity and starvation, and associated mental health problems, to name a few.
We are witnessing those effects already, and they are predicted to worsen dramatically if we do not stop this warming trend. Yet the most immediate harm of burning fossil fuels is the direct result of the air pollution. The pollutants in the air trigger asthma attacks and worsen chronic lung disease. The smaller pollution particles get in our bloodstream and cause heart attacks, stroke, dementia, cancer, and learning difficulties.
In the U.S. each year, dirty air accounts for an excess of 100,000 deaths and adds about $800 billion in health related costs. Cleaning up the air by moving away from fossil fuels would have an immediate and dramatic public health benefit in addition to mitigating climate change.
It is time to open the box and face the challenge of this climate change predicament. Putting politics and convenience aside, we cannot afford to delay any longer.
The latest estimates warn that to avoid catastrophic irreversible climate change, industrialized nations must join together immediately to slash greenhouse gases in half by 2030 and then stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere altogether by the early 2050s. The American Medical Association in 2022 declared “climate change a public health crisis that threatens the health and well-being of all individuals” and committed to advocating for policies that will meet the above goals and “limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.” Medical societies throughout the world agree that this is the biggest public health crisis ever, but it is also the greatest global health opportunity.
Much of what we do to address climate change will save lives, reduce healthcare costs, and increase our overall productivity and wellbeing. Individual action is helpful and necessary, but not enough. Global and national policy is urgently needed.
In 2017, the Maine Medical Association, representing over 4,000 doctors throughout the state, adopted a Climate Change Resolution, urging Congress and the president “to enact, without delay, legislation to reduce carbon emissions in the U.S. considering, among other options to address that, a revenue-neutral carbon fee and dividend.” An astonishing 3,640 of the world’s leading economists also recommend a price on carbon that returns the revenues to the people.
Effective and equitable policies should make climate-friendly and healthy options the easier, more attractive, and economically wise choice. It will take conviction and courage on the part of our elected officials to address climate change. We as constituents must show them our support for such efforts.
Ultimately, the most powerful action anyone of us can take is to make climate change action a top priority. Remember its importance when we go to the polls and vote for leaders who will act on climate. Call and encourage your policymakers at all levels of government to act now with strong climate policy. Tell them your doctors advise it.