Health professionals urge climate action
Anyone who thinks climate change is a fantasy should talk to Laalitha Surapaneni, who as a child watched the rising sea steadily encroach on her home town in India. Now an assistant professor in the U of M Department of Medicine, she is one of eight U of M health science “climate champions”—faculty members bringing the health consequences of climate change, as well as the potential benefits if it is rolled back, to the fore.
“We are duty-bound to prevent what we cannot treat,” Surapaneni says. “So we have to be vocal in communicating the reality of our climate crisis to our legislators and advocate for climate policies that will keep our patients healthy.”
Surapaneni points out the inherent inequality in the effects of climate change, documenting how people who have contributed the least to climate change often end up suffering the most.
“I had a patient who was experiencing homelessness [who was] admitted with an asthma attack on an extremely hot day,” she recalls. “She did not have access to air conditioning and couldn’t afford medications. This is how climate change magnifies existing health inequities to impact the most vulnerable.”
Teddie Potter, a clinical professor in the School of Nursing, calls the dearth of health concerns in scientific articles about climate change “a potentially catastrophic mistake.” She says health professionals can make the case for addressing the climate by showing the toll it takes in heat-related death, longer allergy seasons, and geographically mobile infectious diseases. She enlisted the climate champions to create a climate-focused curriculum to help future health professionals carry the message. She hopes for a world “that prevents suffering rather than patches up suffering.”