Public Health leaders call on lawmakers to take action to curb climate change

February 4, 2020

More than 500 health professionals and more than a dozen leading health organizations in Oregon came out Tuesday to proclaim climate change a public health emergency.

Oregon Public Health Association organized a Call to Action on climate change

The Oregon Public Health Association, the Oregon Nurses Association, the Oregon Pediatric Society, the Oregon Coalition of Local Health Officials, Oregon Community Health Workers Association, the Oregon State University College of Public Health and Human Sciences, and Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility were among the over 40 health organizations calling on Oregon lawmakers to take actions to protect public health.

Public health advocates, providers and officials gathered at the Multnomah County Health Department in a ‘Call to Action’ to bring attention to extreme weather events, wildfires, and droughts, that have increased in frequency and severity over the last decade leading to rising health risks in Oregon.

“Climate change is again at the top of legislators minds as the 2020 session gets underway,” said Jessica Nischik-Long, Executive Director of the Oregon Public Health Association. “We want to make sure Oregon lawmakers know that climate change is more than just an environmental issue. It’s a public health emergency.”

[Download images from the event]

Dr. Jennifer Vines, lead Health Officer for the Portland-Metro region, listed off the rising risk of heat-related illness and from extreme weather, pollution-related illness from wildfire smoke, infections carried by mosquitoes and ticks.

Vines emphasized that those most at risk from climate change are those who contribute the least to climate change. 

“Communities of color and those with low income have historically and systematically experienced poor health because of discrimination related to poor housing, unequal job opportunities, and unequal access to health care,” Vines said. “These groups will almost certainly bear the brunt of climate-change-related health effects.”

She called on governments to center those voices in solutions to climate change. To center those voices and the coming generations who must live in the world of our making. For those looking to a future on the brink, a new medical term has settled into the lexicon: Eco-anxiety.

“We’re not just talking about physical health effects,” said Dr. David Pollack, professor emeritus for Public Policy and Psychiatry at OHSU. “The mental health effects are serious.”

Commissioner Sharon Meieran championed the Call to Action on climate change.

Trauma and other mood and anxiety disturbances rise during extreme weather events and linger long afterwards. Clinicians report that patients, including children and adolescents, are worried about the future, he said. Anxiety and depression induced by the climate crisis are emerging, including anxiety and grief.

“I have anxiety about this,” said Izzy Ventura Meda, executive director of Familias en Acción, a community-based organization that works to strengthen the health and well-being of Latino families in Oregon. 

“Our rural communities, farmworkers, communities of color, and low-income communities; these are the people, and families, on the front lines of the climate crisis,” he said. “Like many other communities, Oregon's Latino community is concerned about what climate change means for our health and the health of our children.”

The ‘Call to Action’ highlights climate action in the energy, transportation, land use, housing, agricultural, and other sectors that would avoid millions of preventable deaths each year globally and promise significant health care cost savings.

The Oregon Call to Action on Climate, Health, and Equity calls out 10 policy priorities:

  • Meet and strengthen Oregon’s greenhouse gas emission reduction commitments.

  • Transition to clean, safe, and renewable energy.

  • Increase investment in active transportation

  • Build local, healthy, and sustainable food and agricultural systems. 

  • Ensure that all Oregonians have access to safe and affordable drinking water

  • Invest in policies that support a just transition for workers

  • Engage the health sector voice in climate policy and action. 

  • Incorporate climate solutions into all health care and public health systems.

  • Ensure that those most impacted have the voice, power, and capacity to be full partners in building a healthy, equitable, and climate resilient future.

  • Invest in climate and health

Dr. Vines said the Call to Action is a reminder that there’s room for hope even as a crisis looms.

“What energizes me is that there are things we can all do to address climate change,” she said. “What’s good for the planet is good for us, specifically actions that protect our air and water, and improve how we live, eat, get around and connect socially with each other.”