AMA declares climate change a public health crisis

The American Medical Association (AMA) this week adopted policy during the annual House of Delegates meeting declaring climate change a public health crisis that threatens the health and well-being of all people. The AMA took a stand on climate change with new policies because of the widely expected impacts on public health. Some of these effects have already been seen with increasing numbers of wildfires, the resulting poor air quality, heat related deaths and hospitalizations, extended draughts, and climate changes that foster the spread of mosquito and other insect vector diseases.

Building on existing efforts to address the climate crisis, the new policy specifically mobilizes the AMA to advocate for policies that limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. The policy also calls for reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions aimed at carbon neutrality by 2050. It also supports rapid implementation and incentivize clean energy solutions and significant investments in climate resilience through a climate justice lens.

“The scientific evidence is clear, our patients are already facing adverse health effects associated with climate change, from heat-related injuries, vector-borne diseases and air pollution from wildfires, to worsening seasonal allergies and storm-related illness and injuries. Like the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis will disproportionately impact the health of historically marginalized communities,” said AMA Board Member Ilse R. Levin, DO, MPH. “Taking action now won’t reverse all of the harm done, but it will help prevent further damage to our planet and our patients’ health and well-being."

While the causes of climate change are often debated, this was not an issue among the physician delegates at the AMA. 

"There was a lot of discussion on this policy in the reference committee to ensure this was a strong policy statement from the AMA. When it came before the House of Delegates, it was passed unanimously," explained Alex Ding, MD, MBA, a radiologist, an incoming AMA Board of Trustees member, an AMA delegate with the California Medical Association, and a member of the AMA Counsel on Science and Public Health. 

Ding said the AMA originally issued a statement in 2008 that outlined potential health threats of global temperature rise. He said the AMA wanted to revisit the issue now that climate change is coming to the forefront of concerns in government policy and the media. The committee created this new resolution based on the latest scientific data from over the past decade. 

The goal of this policy within healthcare is to acknowledge that medicine needs to find ways to decarbonize to help global efforts because it makes up a sizable sector of the economy and is a large consumer of both fossil fuel energy and petroleum-derived plastics used in medical devices and most disposable medical products.

"We made the statement that we consider climate change to be a global public health emergency, and that this should be a priority," Ding said. "For me personally, I consider this an existential threat that needs to be addressed, and this policy raises the bar about the urgency of climate change." 

AMA asking healthcare to divest from fossil fuels 

Another policy the AMA adopted this week was a resolution asking healthcare organizations and health insurance companies to divest stock holdings in fossil fuels. The delegates that reviewed the policy recommended referring it back to committee for more work, but a majority AMA delegates spoke out on this and called for an immediate vote on the resolution. Numerous delegates who spoke said it does not matter if the policy is deferred and reworked, because the basic message will still be the same. They argued healthcare needs to look in the mirror to ask what it can do to help reduce carbon emissions if they are serious about addressing climate change. 

"There is an analogy with this policy as to what the AMA has done in the past with efforts to divest investment portfolios from tobacco companies," Ding explained. "I think it is important for this organization to be pro-active and not reactive and to anticipate some of the major shifts we will see in healthcare and to be able to skate in front of the puck." 

If the AMA and healthcare organizations are not proactive, they will be having a different conversation in several years on to react to the new waves of environmental-caused healthcare issues.

A third new climate change policy the AMA adopted this week recognizes the health, safety and climate risks of current methods of producing fossil fuel-derived hydrogen fuel and the dangers of adding hydrogen to natural gas.

As part of the new policy, the AMA will develop a strategic plan for how to enact its climate change policies, including advocacy priorities and strategies to decarbonize physician practices and the health sector with a report back to the House of Delegates at the 2023 Annual Meeting.

Related AMA Meeting Policy Coverage:

VIDEO: AMA says climate change is a public health emergency — Interview with Alex Ding, MD

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