A Meaningful Response To Climate Change

"It is possible to renew the energy economy and stem the tide of climate change."

— Sabrina McCormick, Ph.D., M.A., Milken Institute School of Public Health associate professor at the George Washington University

Climate change is a reality, but disastrous storms and compromised health are not forgone conclusions. You can make a difference. There are simple choices and changes, from large to small, expensive to free, that can meaningfully reduce carbon emissions that are insulating and warming our planet.

"It can be overwhelming. You feel like you have to change every aspect of your life, but I like to tell folks to take it bit by bit," said associate professor Peter LaPuma, Ph.D., P.E., C.I.H., of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University.

People and Climate Change

Earth has experienced many cycles of warming and cooling across the millennia, but there has been an unprecedented spike in temperature over the past 100 years.1 This planetary shift affects the long-term weather patterns that we see in today's global climate.

Annual rise in temperature

The change in global surface temperature (relative to 1951-1980 average temperatures) has continued to increase steadily over the past several decades.

Matching the rise in temperature is the level of carbon dioxide gas present in our atmosphere.2 These elements are paired for a reason: Carbon dioxide, released from the burning of fossil fuel as well as natural phenomena, allows the sun's light to penetrate the atmosphere but traps its heat from escaping. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere acts like the glass in a greenhouse, giving global warming the alternate name of the "greenhouse effect."

Increase in CO2

A steady rise in CO2 emissions has been noted by NASA and others in the scientific community.

We have near-global recognition that our carbon output is a direct cause of global climate change. Strategies going forward will certainly include adaptations to warming temperatures and rising seas, but undoing the harm we have already caused is still very much within humanity's reach.

"Good analysis shows that it is possible to renew the energy economy and stem the tide of climate change," said Milken Institute School of Public Health associate professor Sabrina McCormick, Ph.D., M.A.

Which Habits Fit Your Life?

  • Air-drying clothes
  • Using warm heat instead of hot for dryers
  • Composting
  • Using reusable bags
  • Installing solar panels
  • Cutting out red meat
  • Becoming vegetarian
  • Becoming vegan
  • Reducing use of cars
  • Installing LED light bulbs
  • Recycling
  • Buying things secondhand
  • Avoiding foods with a lot of packaging
  • Reducing food waste
  • Turning off lights
  • Turning off electric devices
  • Using an electric vehicle
  • Making sure your tires are inflated
  • Taking shorter showers
  • Conserving water
  • Using fewer paper towels and napkins
  • Cutting out straws
  • Increasing house insulation
  • Planting trees
  • Making your home more airtight
  • Regulating thermostat temperature
  • Washing clothes in cold water
  • Using less water
  • Buying fresh, local food

Often, people feel helpless about where to start or are skeptical a single person can make a difference. McCormick regularly talks to her classes about the importance of broad cooperation in reducing emissions.

"What we call collective efficacy is really important," she said. "When people believe that their contribution was accompanied by the contribution of many other people, they feel more confident that their contribution or their efforts will make a difference."

Scientists agree there is time for change, but time is short. An aggressive effort to cut carbon emissions and stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide is key to avoiding the harshest changes global warming could bring.

Based on the most recent research, there are three high-impact changes individuals can make to decrease their carbon footprint:

Avoiding Air Travel

Avoiding Air Travel

Eating a plant-based diet

Eating a Plant-Based Diet

Living Car Free

Living Car Free

Each one of these actions, if undertaken by all citizens, could decrease carbon emissions in the United States by 5 percent.3 With some commitment to a few lifestyle changes, there can be a sizeable mitigation in the rapid deterioration of Earth's climate.

Climate Change and Health

Climate change has many damaging effects on human health.4 It results in:

  • Heat-related illnesses
  • Cancer from exposure to the sun's radiation
  • Respiratory problems because of poor air quality
  • Compromised irrigation systems which affect farmland and water sanitation
  • Nutrition deficits due to crop failures
  • Vector-borne illnesses
  • Environmental disasters and population displacement

Led by informed professionals in the health workforce, each one of these challenges can be addressed. Clinicians can provide health education that advises using high SPF sunscreen to protect against the sun's rays. Air quality warnings serve to alert those with lung and cardiovascular disorders to stay indoors. Vector-borne illnesses are monitored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for scope and impact, and clinicians can educate patients on the importance of preventing and treating insect bites.

A stronger public health infrastructure can help prepare the public for health risks associated with climate change.

Large-scale environmental hazards are best managed by protective policies that reduce risks associated with natural disasters. Building codes, systems of levees and dams, good water management, evacuation routes and a prepared public all contribute to minimizing damage and encouraging quick recovery.

A stronger public health infrastructure can help prepare the public for health risks associated with climate change. Even as people work to combat the worst effects of climate change, they must also prepare and adapt to the changes already in motion. Educating the health workforce with the most current science and preventive health strategies empowers their leadership in facing the present and future health challenges of global climate change.