At this point, every one of us has experienced the impacts of climate change, whether it was the smoke from wildfires blanketing Minnesota last summer or the oppressive heat earlier this summer. We are all vulnerable to climate change harms, but the truth is some people are more vulnerable than others. And to build the kind of Minnesota in which we all thrive, we need to address these inequities.
A legally binding international climate treaty already exists. The 196 signatories of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement pledged to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 F) compared to pre-industrial times. But the words “fossil fuels,” “coal,” “oil,” or “gas” never even appear in the Paris Agreement, and new fossil fuel infrastructure is still being greenlit across the world, locking us into future warming. Countries are already on track to produce 110% more fossil fuels by 2030 than would be compatible with a 1.5 degrees C warming scenario. The Fossil-Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty targets the root cause of global climate change: fossil fuels. Its three foundational pillars also promise public health co-benefits.
As global temperatures have risen in recent decades, so have the number of outbreaks of infectious diseases. SARS, MERS, Zika, West Nile, COVID-19, and now clusters of monkeypox and polio have all recently threatened public health.
“The health impacts of climate change are here,” says Dr. Vishnu Laalitha Surapaneni, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota. “And they are affecting us right here, right now.”
In Minnesota, Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate, formed in 2015, brings together physicians, nurses and allied healthcare providers to add their voices to the public debate on clean energy and climate change. The thrust of the organization’s work is “education and activation,” says Brenna Doheny, PhD, MPH, executive director.
Several physicians, including the co-founders of the organization, share their thoughts on climate change and health—and the urgency of involvement.
Climate change has been cited as a cause for the increased frequency of some high-visibility disasters like forest fires, storms and floods. But its effects aren’t distributed evenly throughout the state’s population.
That’s according to multiple testifiers at Thursday’s meeting of the House Climate and Energy Finance and Policy Committee. Lower-income Minnesota residents and people of color tend to live closer to sources of pollution and have greater difficulty guarding against severe heat events, they said. And that means more illness and shorter life expectancy.
Kathleen Schuler, policy and finance director for Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate, suggested a carbon-free economy would go a long way toward bringing about climate justice.
Kristi White, a clinical health psychologist in Minneapolis, also treats many young adults for issues that stem from the changing climate.
“Some of the things in the patients that I work with are things like asthma exacerbation due to poor air quality from wildfires [and] concerns around the risk for heat-related illnesses during extreme heat waves,” White said. “In addition to helping people deal with the stress of the environmental uncertainty, I’m also helping people adapt their care plans so that they can keep themselves safe during these climate-related events.”
As a young physician in the southeast Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, Dr. Laalitha Surapaneni treated day laborers who couldn’t cool off after a day’s work in the extreme heat. She saw the temperatures rising and the coastline eroding.
“I could see the changes in the environment that were hurting our health,” Surapaneni said.
As Minnesota ramps up the fight on climate change it will soon require developers to measure the greenhouse gases from large new projects. The Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB) approved the pilot approach Wednesday, after years of work. It plans to collect feedback and make improvements on the revised form, called an environmental assessment worksheet, by the end of 2022 and then set final changes.
In an interview, Kathleen Schuler, policy director at the nonprofit Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate, expressed impatience with a pilot project.
“It feels like just requiring this type of information … is like a very small step and they’re not even taking that small step,” Schuler said.
“There are many ways that health and climate change intersect,” said Anna Rahrick, a third-year University of Minnesota Medical School student.
Rahrick’s interest in the relationship between climate and public health led her to Health Students for a Healthy Climate, an interdisciplinary student group aimed at helping health professionals learn about the impacts of climate change and ways to advance action as future health leaders. The student group is affiliated with Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate (HPHC), a nonprofit organization founded by a number of advocates affiliated with the University of Minnesota, including executive director Brenna Doheny, PhD, MPH, a postdoctoral associate at the Medical School’s Duluth Campus.
The effects of working in this heat can be dire, especially for workers who are not acclimated to high temperatures, said Laalitha Surapaneni, M.D., MPH, an assistant professor and hospitalist at the University of Minnesota Medical School.