Earth Day 2019: The Fuse is Lit, It’s Time to Act | The Doctor Weighs In

By Paul S. Auerbach, MD

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he climate change fuse is lit. We must act now, or we may not be able to prevent the worst health consequences of climate change.

On the matter of climate change and global warming, the fuse is lit.

The current epoch of Earth is the “Anthropocene.” This means that for the foreseeable future, the destiny of our planet will be mainly determined by human activity.

In the past half-century by some accounts, we’ve managed to alter our climate as much as it has changed in all of the previously recorded time. And according to accurate records and very intelligent climate scientists with no ulterior motive for overstating the facts, it has not been for the good.

Planetary health

Planetary health has become the major determining factor of our most pressing concerns regarding human health.

Consider the following:

  • Every year, we appropriate about 40% of Earth’s land surface to grow crops and feed livestock
  • We use about half of the planet’s accessible fresh water to irrigate crops
  • We’ve depleted the oceans of more than half of its wild fish. We continue to exploit 90% of global fisheries at or beyond their maximum sustainable limits
  • We have cut down half of the world’s forests and dammed more than 69% of its rivers. By example, the wild forests of Madagascar have been 90% or more destroyed
  • Since the 1950s, the human population has increased by nearly 200% and fossil fuel consumption (which leads to global warming) by more than 550%
  • Pollinators, which are needed for plants to grow, are disappearing worldwide
  • Biodiversity loss is 1000 times the natural background rate of extinction
  • Every day, we lose up to 150 species. So, every year, we lose between 18,000 and 55,000 species
  • In the past 45 years, the number of living mammals, fishes, birds, reptiles, and amphibians has fallen by half
  • Insects are going extinct and their numbers are falling rapidly

Impact on human health

Because of climate change, we can expect to see devastating changes that will directly impact human health. To name a few:

  • Dramatic increases in heat-related illnesses and lung disease
  • Catastrophic weather events (natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and droughts)
  • Sea level rise
  • Mass human migration in search of drinking water and food
  • The geographic spread of vector-borne diseases like malaria and Lyme disease
  • Emotional depression

Millions of people, mostly those living in low- and middle-income nations where people cannot protect themselves, will lose their lives due to many of these problems.

Animal and plant species are becoming extinct because of the loss of coral reefs, forests, and other natural habitats. Simply put,

humans are disrupting natural interwoven biological relationships that determine the stability of life on Earth.

Why are we doing this?

Some of it is done because we don’t yet have commercially viable alternatives for energy production and other industrial pursuits. We also pursue lifestyle preferences and corporate profits. Most importantly, we still lack global consensus about the dangerous path we are on.

In the past, we were unaware of the environmental effects of our actions. However, now that we know, there is no excuse for inaction.

We might find ways to limit some of the damage, but if we don’t correct our course and focus aggressively on prevention, our descendants will inherit a world that is very different from today.

Earth Day 2019

This Earth Day, April 22, 2019, doctors, nurses, and other clinicians worldwide are mobilizing around planetary health.

On April 19, 2019, The Lancet, one of the oldest and most prestigious medical journals, published “ A Call for Clinicians to Act on Planetary Health.” This global call-to-action was led by the Planetary Health Alliance. It reflects an unprecedented commitment of the healthcare community to planetary health.

It is essential that healthcare providers worldwide understand how environmental and climate changes impact their patients. Hopefully, this will spur education, research, preparedness, and prevention.

Climate change is not a zero-sum game to be left to special interests. There is no more important public health issue in our time.

We must muster the courage and energy to learn, teach, and urgently speak out in defense of all life on Earth. It is in grave peril from the destructive activities men and women continue to pursue.

It is time for the medical profession to walk tall and, once again, accept responsibility for the greater good. We have done so many times before in the face of pandemics, wars, and major socioeconomic deficiencies. It is essential now and we must act.

Learn more

To learn more about climate change, please read the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (IPCC) special report.

It calls for deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 in order to prevent an atmospheric temperature rise exceeding 1.5 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels. This is essential because this level of warming will lead to greater increases in climate-related health, economic, and sociopolitical risks. Equally importantly, it could cause an acceleration of changes that would radically alter life on Earth.

The bottom line

Everyone should, to the best of their abilities and circumstances, do something to halt climate change, both individually and collectively. The immediate goals are to learn and form an educated opinion. From there, you can decide how to get involved.

The fuse is lit. It’s time to act.

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Paul S. Auerbach, MD is the Redlich Family Professor Emeritus in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine, and Adjunct Professor of Military/Emergency Medicine at the F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. He is the co-author of Enviromedics: The Impact of Climate Change on Human Health, editor of the textbook Wilderness Medicine, and author of Medicine for the Outdoors. Dr. Auerbach is a founder of the Wilderness Medical Society, member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and serves on the National Medical Committee for the National Ski Patrol System. He was a first responder to the earthquakes in Haiti (2010) and Nepal (2015) and is visiting scholar at the National Center for Disaster Medicine and Public Health. Links: Enviromedics ( Wilderness Medicine ( Medicine for the Outdoors (

Originally published at on April 22, 2019.

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