How medicine is addressing climate change's health effects

Kevin B. O'Reilly , Senior News Editor

What’s the news: The most widely circulated general medical journal in the world is launching a series on the health impact of climate change.

The series from JAMA® “is intended to stimulate improved knowledge and understanding of the health effects of climate change to help foster commitment to timely action to prevent adverse health events from climate change,” says an introductory JAMA Insights” article

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“Action and leadership should begin now to improve resilience in health systems and minimize the contribution of medical practice to climate change. Sustained and meaningful investment to reduce climate change and mitigate its effect on health are needed. Without this, adverse health consequences of climate change will continue to increase,” says the article, written by Kristie L. Ebi, PhD, and Jeremy J. Hess, MD, MPH, of the University of Washington Center for Health and Global Environment in Seattle. In addition to writing the first article in the series, Ebi and Dr. Hess will serve as guest editors to further develop it.

The JAMA series is part of a wider movement in medicine to understand climate change’s health impact and take action to address it.

Why it’s important: “Climate change is no longer only a future health threat,” noted the authors, who also were interviewed for the “JAMA Clinical Reviews” podcast. “It is now possible to quantify morbidity and mortality from climate change. Extreme weather events attributable to climate change now regularly affect communities, causing excess morbidity and mortality, even in places acknowledging the threats posed by climate change and working to implement effective responses.”

In a table, the authors noted a few “climate-sensitive exposures” and related outcomes. For example, high ambient temperatures are associated with more pre-term births, cardiovascular disease-related mortality, schizophrenia morbidity, and arboviral diseases such as dengue. Meanwhile, airborne allergenic pollen such as ragweed is linked to allergic respiratory disease. And small particles from the smoke of wildfires—one type of extreme weather event that is growing more common—is linked to more same-day, all-cause mortality.

“Projections of climate-sensitive health outcomes under different climates and levels of adaptation can inform potential inequities and strategies to reduce risks,” the JAMA Insights article says. “Currently, these projections focus on a few outcomes and indicate that health risks will continue to increase without widespread actions to increase public health preparedness and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

One recent entry in the series, for example, examines thunderstorm asthma and climate change.

In an editor’s note, JAMA Editor-in-Chief Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, PhD, MD, MAS, and Mary M. McDermott, MD, wrote that the series will provide “practical information about climate change and its relationship to changes in prevention, diagnosis and treatment of human disease.”

Drs. Bibbins-Domingo and McDermott added that, “although documenting a causal link between climate change and human health can be difficult, this new JAMA series will summarize evidence linking changes in climate with changes in human disease, focusing on how these changes affect current medical practice, including diagnosis and treatment of human disease. The series will also present proposals and innovative ideas to overcome adverse effects of climate change on human health.”

Learn more: The AMA has declared climate change a public health crisis and the AMA House of Delegates adopted a report saying that climate change represents a significant public health threat and harms individual patients, driving up rates of allergies, asthma and respiratory and cardiovascular disease—and that policymakers and health care organizations should act accordingly.

In 2022, delegates added to AMA policy a goal to “reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions aimed at a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030,” with existing policy calling for carbon neutrality by 2050.

Visit AMA Advocacy in Action to find out what’s at stake in combating the health effects of climate change and other advocacy priorities the AMA is actively working on. Also, find out how physicians at Northwest Permanente, a member of the AMA Health System Program, are seeing the health effects of wildfires.