Anschutz researchers on climate change’s health effects: ‘The science tells us this is a problem’


AURORA | When Superstorm Sandy rocked the East Coast in 2012, the storm left obvious physical, economic and environmental devastation in its wake.

But Jay Lemery, an associate professor and section chief of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine at University of Colorado School of Medicine, said that damage — and similar damage from future weather disasters caused by climate change — belongs in another category: It’s a health issue.

Jay Lemery was one of the editors of Global Climate Change and Human Health on Monday Dec. 07, 2015 at Anschutz Campus. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora SentinelLemery, who is also a wilderness medicine expert for University of Colorado Hospital, said he has long thought doctors need to take a more active role when it comes to discussing the often-controversial topic of climate change.

“I began to think about the conspicuous absence of clinicians in the conversation about climate change,” he said. “It became clear, as the science progressed, we saw that the health impacts were becoming more manifest.”

Last month, Lemery — along with George Luber, a medical anthropologist and chief of the Climate and Health Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Environmental Health — co-edited a book that aims to get their fellow doctors to look at climate change as a health issue.

The book, “Global Climate Change and Human Health,” was published in early November.

Lemery said the book, which comes in at 672 pages, is intended as a textbook for students seeking their medical degree and students seeking a master of public health degree.

Jay Lemery was one of the editors of Global Climate Change and Human Health on Monday Dec. 07, 2015 at Anschutz Campus. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel“I’d love for people to read it but I don’t think people are going to go to the store and buy it,” he said.

The goal, Lemery said, is for the future clinicians who read the book to better understand the sorts of health problems they will face as the climate continues to change.

With temperatures getting more extreme, especially at the higher end, Lemery said a whole host of medical issues will be made worse — including pulmonary disease, heat stroke, diabetes, asthma and allergies.

Luber said he wanted Lemery on the project because he has the ability to connect with  the doctors for which the book is intended.

“Jay comes in not only with skill in pedagogy and teaching, but also in connecting with clinicians,” Luber said in a story about the book on the university’s website. “That was his contribution: to have this text really align with how med schools ought to be teaching, and getting clinicians familiar with this topic and showing its relevance to their work.”

Lemery said that while climate change can be controversial in some circles, the book largely avoids controversy.

“The science tells us this is a problem,” he said. “To me, this is not political, and I do not want to make it political.”

The controversy around climate change often centers on the policy prescriptions posed to combat it, something the book doesn’t touch.

“We stick to the science and let the science speak for itself, and then hopefully that will trickle down,” he said. “We don’t get into policy here.”

Still, with a sizable chunk of the population — and of elected leaders — denying the existence of climate change, Lemery said the book could help to change the conversation.

While Lemery said it wouldn’t be practical for doctors to discuss climate change with their patients during annual check-ups, doctors can start talking about the topic more effectively.

“We still have the power of the white coat, people generally believe what we say, they generally look up to the medical profession,” he said. “It’s very special, it’s the essence of the doctor patient relationship.”

Lemery said re-framing a large, slow-moving problem that can be hard for the public to wrap their hands around as a health issue has been done before, and effectively.

In 1985, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War received the Nobel Peace prize for the efforts to frame potential nuclear war as a health issue.

“Because they framed it as a health issue, they were in many ways unimpeachable,” he said.

If climate change is one day looked at as a matter of health, Lemery said that could go a long way toward tackling the problem.

“I think an appeal to health is going to be a much more powerful pressure on our collective risk assessment,” he said.