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Climate change threatens more than the environment; it’s a public health crisis | COMMENTARY

After a four-year pause related to executive branch inaction, and with the transition to the Biden-Harris administration, we finally have new data from the federal government on the severity of the climate crisis. And it offers a grim diagnosis.

Drawing from more than 50 contributors from various government agencies and academic institutions, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Climate Indicators report confirms that climate change is making life harder for Americans in new and challenging ways.

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Heat waves are occurring more often in the United States. Their frequency has increased from an average of two heat waves per year in the 1960s to six per year during the 2010s. Global temperatures are rising: 2016 was the hottest year on record, and the 2010-2020 was the hottest decade ever recorded. And sea levels are rising along most of the U.S. coastline, by as much as 8 inches in some locations.

Left unaddressed, rising global temperatures, driven by carbon pollution, threaten to make extreme weather events more frequent and severe. Human health will suffer as a consequence, and Black communities will bear the brunt of this harm.

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As the collective voice of African American physicians and the leading force for parity and justice in medicine and the elimination of disparities in health, the National Medical Association has long recognized the disproportionate danger climate change poses to the Black community. Black Americans are more likely to live in areas with high levels of hazardous air pollution, including areas near high-traffic zones and highways. Black youth are 10 times more likely to die from asthma than non-Hispanic white youth. And Black Americans are more likely to live in areas susceptible to flooding and other extreme weather events.

Black mothers face unique challenges made worse by our changing climate. Already, Black mothers are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications and three to four times more likely to suffer from severe disability resulting from childbirth compared to white mothers. Infants who are born to Black mothers die at twice the rate of those born to white mothers.

Exposure to extreme heat, which is becoming more common thanks to climate change, makes pregnancies even more dangerous for Black women and their children, having been linked to more preterm births as well as congenital heart defects and stillbirth. Air pollution has also been found to have similar effects on expecting mothers.

The health consequences of the climate crisis are too great to ignore. As physicians, it is our responsibility to both advocate for policies that reduce the carbon pollution driving climate change, and to empower the next generation of health practitioners so that they can do the same.

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Already, our Climate for Health initiative is working to support major health institutions and health professionals with training on the links between climate and health, and the spectrum of solutions, as well as how to speak effectively on the topic of climate change, and opportunities to act and advocate.

Our ambassadors advocate for priorities that center environmental justice in our response to the climate crisis, and it is encouraging to see the Biden administration mirror that focus in the American Jobs Plan.

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This historic and transformational plan to invest in our people and our economy delivers on President Biden’s promise to center his build back better agenda on justice and equity by fully targeting 40% of the investments in climate and clean infrastructure to disadvantaged communities. It will also replace 100% of the lead pipes throughout the country and cut carbon pollution by accelerating our transition to a 100% clean energy economy.

Climate change threatens to undo decades of health and development gains, and it is clearly the greatest public health challenge of this century. As doctors, we recognize the moral obligation we have to take action today on climate change and build a sustainable future for our children. The American Jobs Plan is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get this right, and it’s time for our leaders in Congress to meet this moment and pass it.

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Dr. Leon McDougle (Twitter: @McDougle2020) is the president of the National Medical Association, the largest and oldest national organization representing African American physicians and their patients in the United States.

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