• Natasha Sood, MPH

Medical Students Strike for Climate


Millions of students around the world are striking for the defining issue of our generation. And as medical students we strike because climate change is the greatest medical and public health emergency of the 21st century: we are facing the epidemics of epidemics.

Our blatant disregard for our home has left coral reefs off the coast of Australia, polar bears in the arctic, and marine turtles in Africa struggling to survive. And you can add us to that list. Climate change isn’t just bad news for the planet…it’s bad news for us. We too are on the endangered species list.

Deforestation and our unrelenting appetite for fossil fuels have permanently altered our future. The prognosis isn’t good. We have seen a stark rise in severity and frequency of hurricanes, tropical storms, air pollution, vector born diseases, and heat waves than we have ever seen in the past. Massive flooding and heat waves in the Midwest threaten the agricultural backbone of our country and food security. Tropical storms such as Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey, Sandy, Maria, and Dorian are prime examples of disasters that have devastated communities’ health for generations to come. The raging fires on the west coast pumping toxic smoke across the country is just a cherry on top of the disasters that have crippled patients, health centers, livelihoods, and economies across the US.

It has been proven time and time again that prolonged exposure to scorching heat waves, high humidity, and extreme weather contributes to an increase in respiratory diseases such as asthma, lung cancer, and pneumonia; poor cardiovascular outcomes such as temperature-related heart attacks and strokes. Doctors around the country are seeing increased rates of kidney failure, adverse birth defects, Type 2 Diabetes, and poor mental health outcomes as a result of climate change.

And around our country and world climate change has forced millions of people to flee their homes due to rising sea levels from Florida and Alaska to Mozambique, extreme weather events in Samoa, and droughts on the west coast and in the Middle East, South Africa, and Europe.

Climate change is widening existing social inequalities and disproportionately affecting the health of vulnerable populations such as women around the world, communities of color, children, those with chronic medical conditions, the elderly and the socioeconomically disadvantaged. It is a threat multiplier. No one deserves this. And while vulnerable communities will bear the brunt of the burden, no one is immune…no matter who you are, where you come from, or where you live.

We do not have the luxury of time before we see these impacts. This isn’t a problem of a hundred years, or even 50 years from now – it has already begun. The National Resources Defense Council just reported that in 2012 health effects from climate related events including wildfires, ozone air pollution, and extreme heat cost the US $10 billion dollars. A truly bitter pill to swallow: the situation has only gotten worse. The World Health Organization predicts that climate change will cause an additional 250,000 deaths per year from previously preventable diseases – and that is an underestimate.

This is an emergency. Inaction is costing us both in our health and our wealth. Why should we have to pay the price for companies who have borrowed the earth from us and our children just to destroy it and our futures? They need to be held accountable. How much more evidence do we need before we start to change? How many people have to suffer before those in power think our lives and our futures are worth it? How much evidence do we need before we divest from fossil fuels and transition to a sustainable society?

Our generation has the largest stake in this issue. We have no room to misunderstand the indisputable evidence and urgency of this catastrophe. We cannot be disabled by denial. It doesn’t matter if you call it global warming or climate change – it is an undeniable fact that it is impacting our health.

Our window for effective action is small. The light at the end of the tunnel seems so dim at times, but we must remember that as a society we have invented nearly everything we need to get out of this disaster. From renewable energy, to innovative technologies, and alternative materials, we already have all the solutions.

To our domestic and international leaders, the eyes of the future are upon you. We need to act as if our health is at stake, because it is. We must act now, for our health and for our future. Let’s get to work. Together.

Call to Action:

Join and/or create a Sustainability Council: Work with your institution to create a Sustainability Council. This interdisciplinary Council should include representation from Facilities, Grounds, Housekeeping, Purchasing, Marketing, Food Services, Administration, Faculty, Students, and Staff. The climate crisis will affect the youngest generation the most. As such, students should be at the forefront of this fight. The group identify existing sustainability initiatives and set bold goals for future projects.

Demand climate action from your CEO/President/Director of your institution: Urge the CEO and President of your Hospital and College to declare a climate emergency, put monetary resources towards the Sustainability Council, and create incentives for rapidly transitioning to sustainable practices.

Join the movement: Join climate advocates in organizations such as American Medical Association, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Physicians for Human Rights, One Health, and many more.

Vote, vote, vote, and vote again: Don’t forget to vote in your local and regional elections. Make sure members on your campus are aware of the elections and which candidates are advocating for climate solutions. Vote local. Vote national. Every voice counts.

Individual choices: No one is too small to make a difference. Everyone has a stake in this problem. Outside of the hospital and standardized patient rooms, I have been zero waste for almost a year in my personal life. I realize that there is an incredible amount of privilege associated in the zero-waste movement: time and money. While being zero-waste has overall decreased my spending and increased my savings, it does require the ability to invest and buy in bulk. I know this may not be a possibility for many. Do I expect or want others to go to that extreme? Absolutely not. I simply challenge you to take a look at the trash you produce and see if there are ways to cut down on it. My recommendation: pick one project every month...or even every two months. You will be surprised at how quickly you transition to a low-or-zero waste lifestyle! But please remember, we don’t need everyone on the planet to be 100% zero waste. We need billions of people doing it imperfectly.

Natasha Sood is a second-year medical student at Penn State College of Medicine with a Master of Public Health from Columbia University in Environmental Health Sciences – Climate Change and Health. Questions can be directed to: nsood@pennstatehealth.psu.edu. Twitter: natasha_sood; Instagram: notrashtalk


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