WASHINGTON Climate change should be treated as
a public health issue, especially by the United States, the
world's biggest long-term emitter of greenhouse gases, health
and ecology experts said on Tuesday.
An Earth transformed by climate change could lead to more
climate-related diseases, especially those transmitted by
insects and those borne by water supplies, the experts said at
a meeting of the American Public Health Association.
The United States and other rich countries bear special
responsibility because their climate-warming emissions will
have a disproportionate impact on poor countries that emit the
least and have the fewest resources to deal with public health
problems, said Jonathan Patz of the University of Wisconsin.
"There is ... an issue of disproportional vulnerability,"
Patz said at a news conference. "But ... in the industrialized
world, because we live in a globalized economy, an increase in
disease anywhere in the world really puts everyone at risk."
Health hazards related to climate change include severe
heat waves and droughts, which can affect the food and water
supply; more severe storms; and more ground-level ozone, also
known as smog, which is sensitive to temperature and can affect
people with breathing problems such as asthma.
"Climate change is one of the most serious public health
threats facing our nation," said Dr. Georges Benjamin, the
association's executive director. "Yet few Americans are aware
of the very real consequences of climate change on the health
of our communities, our families and our children."
The United States has long been the top emitter of
climate-warming greenhouse gases, notably the carbon dioxide
from coal-fired power plants and petroleum-powered vehicles.
At least one study this year found China was overtaking the
United States on this score, but over time, the United States
has still emitted more.
"In the aggregate, we are still the number one country
responsible for climate change," he said, noting that carbon
dioxide stays in the environment for about 70 years.
Patz and Benjamin stressed that rising awareness of climate
change can be seen as an opportunity to improve public health.
To that end, Benjamin announced a six-month plan to develop
recommendations to help public health professionals deal with
Public health professionals include doctors, nurses,
lawyers and health educators. The recommendations are expected
to be released in April, Benjamin said.