Voting YES on I-732 will be the clarion call across the state and nation to address climate change and the dire health impact.
Recently I listened to two Seattle mothers of 20-something daughters voice concern about their girls’ plans to vacation in Florida. As a physician, I know my professional colleagues received similar questions. “The Zika virus thing. What do you think about travel to Florida? What would you recommend?”
The Zika virus anxiety in our protected cocoon of Washington State may be new for us but not for other communities across of the globe. In fact many Americans would be surprised to learn that a Zika-like phenomenon was forecast a decade ago by global health organizations including the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control. When Zika virus began affecting American communities it was a wake-up call about the health impact of climate change.
This summer’s explosion of the Zika virus in the face of extended mosquito season is an example of what the National Institutes of Health predict from climate change. Changes in vector ecology means increased incidence of mosquito and tick-borne diseases like Malaria, West Nile virus, dengue, and Lyme---typically seen only in very warm climates or for limited seasons. An alarming study from the World Health Organization predicts warming of two to three degrees Celsius would put up to 7 percent more people—several hundred million globally—at risk of malaria.
Moreover, increase in vector-borne illness is just one of eight health impact categories the US Global Change Research Program is forecasting. Across the world, nations are already experiencing serious consequences in every category described in the government’s well-researched assessment. Famine, respiratory illness, diarrheal disease, and heat-related deaths are just a few. To be clear, those communities most impacted also suffer from poverty and lack sufficient public health resources.
Physicians, nurses and other clinicians will be on the front line of the potentially disastrous health impact from climate change. We have an obligation to act urgently to protect the health of our communities. That is why Physicians for Climate Action Collaborative supports Initiative 732, a revenue-neutral carbon tax on the Washington State ballot this November. Experts agree curbing carbon emissions is an essential step to address climate change and therefore mitigate health impact. Indeed, the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, an international collaboration of European and Chinese institutions, has asserted that "tackling climate change is the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century."
As a doctor, I am trained to evaluate protocols to treat disease--carefully weighing the benefits and side effects, outlining for the patient the best-case and worst-case scenarios. Even with well-established protocols though, patients often ask me: “What would YOU do if you were in my shoes?” They want to know how a doctor with inside knowledge would personally approach the same health situation.
Pondering the Zika virus question posed to me by the two mothers of millennial daughters, the fact is I too have a millennial daughter. It IS personal. When I think about “changes in vector ecology” and the other health impacts I am painfully aware our children and their families will bear the brunt of climate change. Although they have the benefit of living in the U.S. with access to excellent public health services, they will not be immune. For Washington State physicians, voting YES on I-732 will be the clarion call across the nation to address climate change and mitigate the dire health impact.
Francine Gaillour, MD, a Bellevue, WA physician, is a Fellow of the American Association for Physician Leadership and the executive director of the Physicians Climate Action Collaborative, an educational initiative dedicated to helping physicians lead climate action in their local communities