New national climate assessment reaffirms Wisconsin health care group's call for action
A new national report drives home the message that no person – or place – is immune to the impacts of climate change. The National Climate Assessment, which is released every five years, came out last week.
Beginning Nov. 27, a series of webinars extending through mid-March will explore facets of the assessment. It is mandated by Congress and evaluates climate changes, risks, impacts and responses in the United States. The report says the perils are broad and daunting, but cost-effective technology and tools exist to shift the trajectory.
Joel Charles is among those embracing the call for action. He's a family doctor in rural southwest Wisconsin, near Viroqua. He also chairs an organization called Healthy Climate Wisconsin.
“We are a group of doctors, nurses and other health care professionals around the state of Wisconsin who are committed to educating the public about the health impacts of the climate crisis and committed to advocating for equitable solutions to that crisis,” Charles says.
Charles says the recently released National Climate Assessment reaffirms the group’s resolve.
“We know that the burning of fossil fuels, air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels causes about 16% of early deaths in Wisconsin, which is one of the highest rates in the country. So from the moment of conception to their last breath, our patients are made sick from the burning of fossil fuels — everything from still births, pre-term births, delayed cognitive development in children, asthma, heart attacks, cancer [and] strokes,” he says.
Charles sees climate impacts playing out among his patients.
“This summer with those wild fires coming down from Canada, those climate-induced wildfires, I saw just so many patients coming into the hospital — sick with lung issues, where they hadn’t had lung issues before. People coming in with heart failure, just a lot of people sick from that wildfire smoke,” Charles says.
Storms are steadily become both more erratic and severe. That makes flood-prone areas like the one in which Charles lives and works more volatile.
“The Kickapoo River Valley is known for bad flooding and my son was born the night of an unprecedented flood. Some dams broke and a bunch of my patients in the Kickapoo River Valley were flooded out of their homes. A bunch of my colleagues couldn’t get to the hospital,” he says.
The good news, Charles says, is solutions are at the ready, “Efficiency and clean energy are so much cheaper than fossil fuels,” he says.
Charles’ advocacy emerged long before he became a family doctor.
He says climate change has has been “chasing” him his whole life, starting in Green Bay where he grew up. “In like a low income community in Green Bay, there's a lot of southeast Asian and Hmong refugees there. I just had a desire for justice growing up and I became a doctor to help people and quickly learned climate change is the number one threat to humanity,” Charles says.
Then came his medical residency in Santa Rosa, California.
“The year we graduated, there was one of the first big urban wildfires, Santa Rosa fire of 2017 burned down the neighborhood of a lot of my patients and burned down the clinic that I had been taking care of patients at … I decided that in addition to taking care of patients, that I was going to use my role as a doctor to help protect my community,” he says.
Charles says his fellow Healthy Climate Wisconsin members share that resolve, “There's really no reason not to sprint full speed ahead on the energy transition here, so Wisconsin as a whole can chart a path forward on this," he says
Charles says his group is focusing inward at the health care sector.
“The health care sector is responsible for 8-10% of carbon emissions in the U.S. and that's a lot. And so, we have to do to more ... to make sure our hospitals and clinics aren’t contributing to this problem,” Charles says.
Healthy Climate Wisconsin is also pushing for stronger public policy to help jumpstart action. “The Environmental Protection Agency needs to pass strong pollution safeguards and they’re in the process of considering that right now,” he says.
As for Wisconsin, “The state of Wisconsin needs to pass much stronger clean energy standards. Wisconsin is really lagging; all of its neighbors — Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan — they've all passed really great climate policies in the last few years and Wisconsin has really lagged behind,” Charles says.
In Charles' words, "there’s no one not affected by climate change." He’s hoping to help more health professionals realize they have the power to impact the issue.