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Doctors Are Becoming Leaders In The Environmental Movement

Emma Loewe
December 6, 2021
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
By Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us."
December 6, 2021

This summer, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its much-anticipated progress report on climate change. In short, it's not looking good: The 200-plus contributing scientists agreed that we are not reducing emissions fast enough, and without immediate action, the increasing floods, wildfires, droughts, storms, and heat waves we are seeing are only expected to get worse—and quickly.

The report emphasizes that there is no "one-size-fits-all" solution to the climate crisis, and change will need to happen across the board. One industry that we at mbg are starting to see step up to the plate is health care. Health professionals have a unique vantage point on the climate crisis and the harm it plays in not only our planet but our bodies. As such, we're hopeful that their voices can really make a difference in ushering in the action we so desperately need.

How doctors have a front-row seat to the climate crisis.

Doctors, nurses, and health professionals of all stripes are already seeing the effects of a warming world in their practice.

Collins, a Boston-based emergency medicine physician, recalls a patient who came to her clinic during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017. The storm caused the woman, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer, to flee her home and come to America seeking treatment. "That was really the first time I was clear that I was seeing a patient who was directly impacted by climate," Collins recalls. "I found it very interesting and telling that her first point of contact in the United States was with health care. I think we can anticipate seeing more of such patients who migrate as a result of a climate-driven extreme weather event or other climate impacts."

And it's not just during times of crisis that clinicians are noticing a shift. Neelima Tummala, M.D., an ENT physician and climate advocate with the George Washington University Medical Faculty Associates, shares that in her practice, patients now frequently cite more severe allergies that start earlier and end later in the year than they used to. Research suggests that climate change is extending the pollen allergy season1 and increasing the pollen count2 in the air.

While it's hard to directly attribute a health issue to a warming world and not some other risk factor, Tummala says this doesn't stop her from talking about climate change and its associated threats with her patients. She does so not to "scare people or raise alarm," she says. "I do it to help people understand how the environment they live in is impacting their health."

Tummala is one of many doctors starting to raise these issues in their exam rooms and beyond to advocate for climate reform.

How the doctrine of Do No Harm applies beyond the hospital.

As more doctors are speaking out about the climate-health connection, more organizations are forming to amplify their voices.

Collins was one of the first clinicians to become involved with Health Care Without Harm, a group working to forge a more sustainable future for health care globally. She notes a huge surge in interest from doctors looking to engage with the cause over the last few years, "as the news we are getting is more and more concerning and as the health connection is getting clearer and clearer." (The physician network she started within the organization in 2018 is now up to 850 members.)

Healthcare Without Harm stands alongside other large coalitions like the Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health and Physicians for Social Responsibility, and specialty organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics climate arm and Doctors For Clean Air. Teams of doctors are also organizing in states across the U.S. to influence local policies related to the environment and health.

All of these groups have different approaches and areas of impact. Some are focused on education and writing the dangers of climate change into medical school curricula and textbooks. Others are busy supporting legislation change, writing letters to senators and publicly supporting policies that have climate and health in mind. Others are pushing for the health care sector to decarbonize and reduce its high environmental impact.

However, they are all working to spread the same message: You can't talk about climate without talking about health.

"We have a new professional responsibility to be climate activists in a lot of ways; to talk about climate in every institution we're a part of and anchor the urgency to act on climate as a health imperative, as a health emergency," says Ashley McClure, M.D., the co-founder of the California health care coalition Climate Health Now, which now has over 500 members.

Amanda Millstein, M.D., another co-founder and a primary care pediatrician in Richmond, California, home to the Chevron Richmond Refinery, has a powerful example of what this can look like in practice. In the front-line community where she works, local organizers had been lobbying to restrict pollution from the nearby refinery for years. When the most recent proposal to set stricter emissions limits came out, Millstein and other Climate Health Now members asked those organizers what they could do to help it pass. They did what their community asked of them: They held a press conference on the health impacts of the refineries and spoke to air district board members about the dangers of air pollution. As a result of this team effort, the stricter emissions rule—which was not expected to pass—passed by 19 to 4. 

This success illustrates why health care professionals are uniquely poised to speak on the topic of climate. They are trusted members of society who have a deep understanding of science. As such, their words are credible, and their demands carry weight. When health care professionals can work together with communities to elevate their voices and validate their concerns, powerful change can happen.

What's next for the green generation of doctors?

We predict that doctors will continue to become more vocal about the threats of climate change in the year ahead—which can only be a good thing. 

"When health practitioners and caregivers start to think this way, I'm optimistic that we can make a rapid change and shift the trajectories of disease at many levels—air, water, soil, sea, and the cells in our bodies." Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D., functional medicine doctor and the founder of Big Bold Health, tells mbg.

Furthermore, as we move into the rest of the 2020s, which will be a decisive time for climate action, Collins hopes that physicians can "look through every aspect of health care through a climate lens."

This physician-led movement reminds us that moving forward, every sector of society—from administrators to artists, teachers to technicians—needs to leverage its unique skills to advocate for a healthier world. What role will you play?

This is just one of the trends mbg is predicting for 2022. Check out our full list of the latest health & wellness trends.

Emma Loewe author page.
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director

Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.

Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.