Letter: Climate change action is a medical necessity

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Last week, I received an invitation to speak at a press conference on climate change. The night before the event, my three children asked me, “Dad, what do you know about climate? Why are you a climate expert?” “I’m not,” I told them, “but climate affects us all.”

As an organ transplantation surgeon for Rhode Island Hospital, I’m intimately aware of the potential disasters we face from climate change. When someone passes away and the family consents to donate their organs, I’m the person they call to recover those organs and liberate two people from dialysis.

Medicine relies on a system of infrastructure to support it. If weather disasters due to climate change — severe storms, power outages and floods, to name a few — lead to failures of this infrastructure, there will be serious consequences. New Orleans is a stark example of this. Nearly a decade later, the medical system is still recovering from the damages caused by Hurricane Katrina.

As climate change becomes a reality and similar disasters threaten Rhode Island, imagine the individual Rhode Islanders who cannot receive timely surgery because of power outages and blocked transportation routes.

Rhode Island also faces more immediate adverse health consequences of climate change. As average temperatures continue to rise, Rhode Island will experience longer heat waves. The annual number of hot days (over 90° F) is predicted to grow from about five today to nearly 60 by 2100. Extreme heat days are already affecting an increasing number of people, particularly children, with asthma and heat stroke.

Finally, climate change affects the quality of life in the Ocean State. A  healthy environment is an important benefit to living in Rhode Island, with its beautiful beaches and parks. As Rhode Island faces sea level rise and other impacts of climate change that deface its beauty, it might become a less desirable place for raising a family and recreation, and highly skilled professionals might choose to work elsewhere.

The medical field throughout the state employs 77,000 people. They came to the state for a reason —some because of the top-notch universities; many because Rhode Island is a beautiful place to live. We’re attracted by the beaches, and we’re attracted by the environment. If that starts to lose its luster as the impacts of climate change become more real, we’re going to have a tougher time recruiting talented physicians and medical researchers.

The General Assembly is the closest it has been to passing comprehensive climate legislation, bills that set targets for cutting carbon emissions while empowering individual communities to adapt to sea level rise and more intense weather. These bills provide Rhode Islanders with our most important weapon in the battle against climate change.

I’m not a climate expert; I’m a doctor. I know that if we do not take action on climate now, our state will lose crucial economic and medical opportunities. Join me in calling or emailing your legislator today to tell them that you support comprehensive state climate legislation.

Dr. Paul Morrissey

Barrington

Dr. Paul Morrissey is a kidney transplantation surgeon at Rhode Island Hospital.

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