In preparation for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health last month published a superbly written and wonderfully referenced policy statement (and a much more detailed companion article here) on the effects of climate change on children’s health. The statement is direct and factual, with no ulterior motives betrayed by the authors who are pediatricians, just like your own. The abstract alone is worth careful reading as the existential threat global warming poses to the planet and its inhabitants is considered while at the same time acknowledging the health, security, and economic opportunities that will come when we decide to do something about it:
Rising global temperatures are causing major physical, chemical, and ecological changes in the planet. There is wide consensus among scientific organizations and climatologists that these broad effects, known as “climate change,” are the result of contemporary human activity. Climate change poses threats to human health, safety, and security, and children are uniquely vulnerable to these threats. The effects of climate change on child health include: physical and psychological sequelae of weather disasters; increased heat stress; decreased air quality; altered disease patterns of some climate-sensitive infections; and food, water, and nutrient insecurity in vulnerable regions. The social foundations of children’s mental and physical health are threatened by the specter of far-reaching effects of unchecked climate change, including community and global instability, mass migrations, and increased conflict. Given this knowledge, failure to take prompt, substantive action would be an act of injustice to all children. A paradigm shift in production and consumption of energy is both a necessity and an opportunity for major innovation, job creation, and significant, immediate associated health benefits. Pediatricians have a uniquely valuable role to play in the societal response to this global challenge.
After reviewing the straightforward scientific data that leads to the unambiguous conclusion that the Earth is warming, the climate is changing, and humans are to blame, the authors turn to the primary, secondary, and tertiary threats climate change presents to a uniquely vulnerable population:
According to the World Health Organization, more than 88% of the existing burden of disease attributable to climate change occurs in children younger than 5 years.
Exposure to extreme weather events like heat waves, severe storms, floods, droughts and wildfires are the primary threats presented by climate change to the lives and well being of children:
The distinctive health, behavioral, and psychosocial needs of children subject them to unique risks from these events. Extreme weather events place children at risk for injury, loss of or separation from caregivers, exposure to infectious diseases, and a uniquely high risk of mental health consequences, including posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and adjustment disorder. Disasters can cause irrevocable harm to children through devastation of their homes, schools, and neighborhoods, all of which contribute to their physiologic and cognitive development.
The secondary health effects of climate change reflect the ecologic changes that are already underway, causing infectious diseases in humans, crop failures and malnutrition, and diseases caused by deteriorating air and water quality — some of which are already being seen right here in Southwestern Pennsylvania:
Air quality can be reduced through temperature-associated elevations in ground-level ozone concentration, increased pollen counts and allergy season duration, and wildfire smoke; all of these factors exacerbate respiratory disease and asthma in children…
… Currently, climate warming has been identified as contributing to the northern expansion of Lyme disease in North America and has been projected to increase the burden of child diarrheal illness, particularly in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Tertiary effects of climate change on children’s health center around both psychological security and physical safety:
The social foundations of children’s mental and physical health and well-being are threatened by climate change because of: effects of sea level rise and decreased biologic diversity on the economic viability of agriculture, tourism, and indigenous communities; water scarcity and famine; mass migrations; decreased global stability; and potentially increased violent conflict.
The AAP calls for mitigation strategies to prevent the most severe effects of climate change to begin at once:
- Reduce energy consumption and waste through conservation.
- Decrease the use of fossil fuels for energy generation and transportation.
- Increase the use of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal.
- Reduce the carbon footprint made by transportation systems, architectural designs, and agricultural systems.
The AAP sees economic and health benefits as a win-win in addressing climate change:
A paradigm shift in our production and consumption of energy is both a necessity and an opportunity for major innovation, job creation, and significant, immediate associated health benefits.
Taking steps in aggressively addressing climate change begins by keeping carbon-intensive fuels — oil, coal, natural gas — in the ground (because, you know, CO2). How quickly we transition our economies to renewable electricity will determine how much victory we can eventually claim. Rapid movement to a carbon-free economy presents so many opportunities for job creation, as well as benefits for national security (rebuilding a decentralized electrical grid, less reliance on foreign oil), environmental health (cleaner air and water for all creatures), and public health.
Tomorrow we’ll look at the AAP’s recommendations to pediatricians and other health care providers, and their advice to government.
*** Dr. Ketyer is a member of the AAP Council on Environmental Health.