Barack Obama last week highlighted the impact of climate change on public health, hours after the White House unveiled an initiative targeting adverse health effects caused by extreme weather and greenhouse gas emissions.
“There are a whole host of public health impacts that are going to hit home,” Obama said at a roundtable discussion with health professionals at Howard University in Washington DC, citing rising asthma rates and the prospects of nontraditional insect-borne diseases soon moving to North America. “Ultimately...all of our families are going to be vulnerable. You can’t cordon yourself off from air or from climate.”
The event marked the latest effort by the president to raise the spectre of climate change and use the bully pulpit to defend steps his administration has taken to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
As part of its campaign linking climate change to public health, the administration will bring together the medical and scientific community for a series of meetings at the White House—including a climate change and health summit with US surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy this spring.
Both Murthy and Gina McCarthy, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, joined Obama at the meeting, which the White House timed with National Public Health Week. Much of the discussion focused on the worsening of asthma due to pollution and ozone exposure, an issue that has been attributed to climate change by the American Thoracic Society.
Murthy said the issue was “personal” for him, since he once lost an uncle to a severe asthma attack.
“We have more people exposed to triggers that can cause asthma attacks, and more asthma attacks mean more days of school missed. They mean more days of work missed. They mean more costly trips to the doctor,” Murthy said. “And they most importantly mean more scary moments for parents and for children.”
In a background call with reporters ahead of the event, administration officials identified the elderly, children, minorities, the sick and low-income individuals as being at particularly high risk levels for injuries caused by extreme weather.
“The president has been consistently focused on the fact that no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change,” said Brian Deese, a top Obama adviser. “This is not just a future threat—this is a present threat...Climate change is posing a threat to more people, in more places, to their public health.”
In recent months, Obama has shown more aggression in his environmental policy—appeasing activists who have long criticized the president for not enacting climate change policies sooner. In November, Obama announced a $3bn commitment by the US to an international fund that seeks to help developing countries address climate change. He also reached a historic bilateral climate agreement with China, under which the US will cut its emissions by 26-28% by 2025.
Several medical groups applauded Obama’s public health activities, including the American Lung Association.
“Too many people think climate change is something that will happen far into the future, but we are already seeing impacts on our health today,” Harold Wimmer, the group’s national president and CEO, said in a statement. “Now is the time for bold action to protect our health and our communities from the dangerous impacts of carbon pollution and climate change – especially the health of our most vulnerable populations, children, seniors, people with chronic diseases like asthma.”
Republicans vehemently oppose Obama’s climate agenda, which has been taken to court by Peabody Energy, the nation’s largest coal company. In an unexpected turn of events, Laurence Tribe—the liberal constitutional law professor whom Obama worked for at Harvard Law School—has agreed to argue on behalf of Peabody against the legality of the administration’s climate actions.
The overwhelming majority of Americans believe in global warming, according to most polling, and broadly support strategies to address climate change, including increased regulation and limits on coal-fired power plants.