The climate crisis is affecting everyone, but no group has more at stake than children. That was the key message of Debra Hendrickson, MD, at the recent American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) 2019 National Conference and Exhibition in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her talk, “A burning house: Children’s health in the warming world,” addressed conference attendees during the plenary session on Monday, October 28.
Hendrickson told the audience that she was inspired to write a book on the need for action after seeing how climate change was affecting her patients in Reno, Nevada, which in 2016 was named the fastest-warming city in the United States. From infants suffering from wildfire smoke to teenagers anxious about their future in a warming world, children are increasingly feeling the impacts of our changing climate, she said.
Hendrickson urged doctors to better recognize how certain illnesses—such as asthma, allergies, heat illnesses, and infectious diseases carried by ticks and mosquitoes—are being amplified by rising temperatures, more frequent wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, and other climate changes.
“Although the health consequences of climate change are being seen in our patients,” she said, “clinicians may not notice because, much like natural disasters themselves, these diagnoses have always been around but they’re occurring now with greater frequency or severity.”
As part of her talk, Hendrickson told the stories of several children affected by wildfires, hurricanes, or heat waves, and then used their cases to explain why children are more physiologically and developmentally vulnerable to the health problems created by climate change. She emphasized the importance of such storytelling in motivating parents and policymakers to act, arguing that the climate crisis is not just a global crisis, it’s also “a very personal crisis, multiplied many times.”
Hendrickson noted that, ironically, pediatricians today have extraordinary new medications and technology to keep their patients healthy, while at the same time children are facing an existential crisis. “Climate change is threatening everything we work to accomplish for our patients because it is altering the fabric of life itself,” she said.
Far from being a pessimist, Hendrickson emphasized the great potential for pediatricians, as trusted sources of information, to help promote solutions and lead the way, both in their practices and their daily lives. She noted that there are relatively easy steps that each person can take to reduce their own carbon emissions and build a broader movement toward sustainable energy.
For example, most utility companies now offer a “green energy” option that allows customers to choose all-renewable electricity with just a few clicks on their website. Wider adoption of electric cars, which can plug into these all-green homes, and reducing meat and dairy content in our diets would also help, Hendrickson said.
Finally, noting that children are rising up in protest around the world, demanding that governments and corporations act on this issue while there is still time, she called on pediatricians to stand with them.
“We care for the generation that will be most affected by this crisis,” Hendrickson said. “We have a moral obligation to fight for our patients.”