Health Care Leaders Denounce Paris Withdrawal
By Sarah Spengeman, Ph.D., Climate Program Associate Director, Health Care Without Harm
Last week, world leaders, 200 mayors and 10 governors, along with CEOs of major U.S. corporations, rushed to decry President Trump’s announcement to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement. They pointed to the vast economic benefits of continued participation in the climate accord, the negative impact a U.S. exit will have on diplomacy abroad, and the urgent need to protect the public from the most devastating consequences of climate change.
Given that climate change has been called “the biggest global-health threat of the 21st century,” it is no surprise that U.S. health care systems, medical associations, and clinicians from across the country also weighed in, joining the growing chorus of voices expressing dismay at the president’s decision.
Health Systems Share Disappointment
In an official statement, Richard J. Gilfillan, CEO of Trinity Health, one of the largest Catholic health care systems in the United States, wrote:
“We are deeply disappointed in President Trump’s decision to withdraw America’s commitment to the Paris Agreement and its international partners. Participating in the carbon reduction agreement is the right thing to do for the health and security of our country.”
Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard J. Tyson remarked on the health consequences of a changing climate: “Climate change is already causing health effects that will dramatically worsen unless action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” He urged other organizations to reduce emissions and combat climate change.
Health care providers understand the dangers climate change poses to human health, hospital infrastructure, and their bottom line.
In conjunction with the 2015 Paris Climate Conference that led to the Paris Agreement, several U.S. health care systems hosted a Healthcare Climate Leadership Roundtable to plan steps to address climate change. Some announced commitments to the 2020 HealthCare Climate Challenge, and Dignity Health presented its plans at the UN event.
Prior to Trump’s Announcement, the Heath Care Climate Council, representing 19 leading U.S. health systems, had urged the president to stick with the accord, stating:
“Transitioning to an economy driven by clean energy will save millions of dollars in health care costs, create jobs, and prevent catastrophic damage caused by extreme weather. We know that reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is the best way to protect the health of our patients and our communities over the long term.”
Associations Warn of Public Health Crisis
Along with leading health care systems, U.S. medical associations, representing thousands of health professionals, also warned of the impending health crisis.
The newly formed Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, made up of 12 leading medical associations representing over 400,000 physicians, wrote:
“President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the historic 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change is the wrong choice that puts Americans at unnecessary risk. Climate change is the greatest public health challenge of our time and harms the health and wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable citizens — especially the elderly and children.”
The American College of Physicians said, “The United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement will greatly undermine the global effort to prevent and mitigate the devastating impact of climate change on human health.”
And its president, Jack Ende, MD, cautioned, “Today’s decision therefore greatly increases the chances that the global effort to reduce carbon emissions will be insufficient to avert catastrophic consequences for human health.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics called the U.S. withdrawal “a dangerous step backward to protecting public health.” Trump’s decision, they said, “signifies a detrimental reversal in our country’s commitment to addressing global climate change.”
Doctors and Nurses Express Concerns
Pediatricians from across the country have echoed this statement. After Trump’s announcement, pediatrician Bronwyn Baz, MD, wrote, “My pediatric patients will be hospitalized more often with severe asthma attacks due to increased pollution.”
And Krysta Schlis, MD, a pediatric oncologist, said she opposed the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement because, “My young patients who survive childhood cancer deserve clean air, clean water, and a healthy future.”
Pediatricians aren’t the only providers worried about climate change impact on their patients. Laurel Whitis, MD, an internal medicine resident in Detroit, referred to what she has seen in her practice, “As a physician, I am opposed to withdrawal from the Paris Agreement because our changing climate is making my patients sicker. Heart disease, cancer, heat-related illness, West Nile, asthma, and more — these are all made worse by climate change.”
In Chicago, Marie Cabiya, MD, said that withdrawing from the Paris Agreement was a denial of the urgent nature of climate change. She warned, “Every step we take away from environmental protection measures endangers our health by increasing respiratory illnesses, increasing the risk for infectious outbreaks, threatening the food supply, and more.”
Psychiatrists also are responding by drawing attention to the mental health impacts of climate disasters. “We can’t financially or emotionally afford the mental health fallout of more frequent and severe natural disasters,” wrote Maisha Correia, MD.
Along with doctors, nurses, who often serve on the front lines of community health, shared their disappointment at Trump’s announcement and emphasized the need for urgent climate action on the part of the United States and all nations. “Without strong action on a global scale we will continue to see increasing threats to human health, including increases in asthma and respiratory disorders, vector-borne diseases, and heat-related illness and death” said Katie Huffling, a nurse and Executive Director of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments.
Health Systems Lead on Climate Action
Despite expressions of disappointment and concern, health system leaders voiced confidence in their ability to forge ahead, recommitting to address climate change and protect the health of their patients and communities. Large health systems, including Catholic Health Initiatives, Dignity Health, Hackensack University Health System, Mercy Health, Trinity Health, and Providence St. Joseph Health, joined leaders from 125 cities, 9 states, 902 businesses and investors, and 183 colleges and universities to announce their intent to honor the United States’ commitment to greenhouse gas reduction targets as laid out in the Paris Agreement.
“Trump’s rejection of the Paris Agreement demonstrates his fundamental defense of the fossil fuel industry and places the United States alone and in opposition to the defense of our children and the future health of the planet,” said Gary Cohen, Health Care Without Harm’s CEO and founder. “The good news is that progress on climate solutions will continue to accelerate as cities, hospitals, schools, and businesses are increasingly showing the way toward a low-carbon future.”
While the federal government dramatically scales back efforts to solve the climate crisis, U.S. health professionals have an urgent opportunity in front of them. Join us, as well as the thousands of local and state leaders and businesses, in taking action to protect the health of our people and planet.