US Climate and Health Alliance

Across the globe, med students tackle climate change and health

Written by Keanan McGonigle

Earlier this month, a draft of the U.S. government’s quadrennial National Climate Assessment was leaked by a non-profit to The New York Times. The media outlet released the report under the ‘shocking’ headline that the U.S. is already experiencing the impact of the man-made climate change. Medical students were not surprised by this ‘revelation.’ Along with doctors, nurses, and other health professionals, we are working on the frontlines – observing and treating the impacts of climate change on the health of our patients and communities. Climate change is already happening, and we are sounding the alarm.

My own community of New Orleans was recently in the national spotlight again, facing yet another 100-year storm, while one hour away the state capital of Baton Rouge is just now recovering from its own 1000-year storm. Increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events is just one facet of the changing climate with which future medical professionals will have to contend. From worsening air quality triggering asthma to heat waves to mosquito-borne illnesses such as West Nile Virus or Zika, we know that as future doctors we are facing a rapidly change health landscape.

Thankfully, medical students around the globe are stepping up to meet the challenge. The International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations, representing 1.3 million medical students from 126 nations, is leading the charge with opinion pieces and training curriculum on climate change and health. Students are speaking out – particularly those learning and practicing in some of the most climate-vulnerable regions – and publishing work on important intersections of climate and the health profession. They’ve covered the health co-benefits of mitigating climate change; the role of medicine and disease control; how medical schools should promote ‘eco-medical literacy’; and the direct and indirect impacts of climate change on health.

From the entirety of the Middle East and North Africa – which researchers worry may be uninhabitable if current temperature trends continue – to northern Europe, to the plateaus of Pakistan, future health professionals are keenly aware of climate change’s threat to human health and are responding. Their calls for international political leadership, reductions in carbon emissions, and action from future health professionals are a powerful impetus for action. In the U.S., even as the current administration turns its back on efforts to reduce climate-changing emissions, future health professionals must double down on efforts to protect the health of all Americans. Through mitigation and adaptation efforts, medical students here in the U.S. must take action now for the sake of the patients we will soon care for.

Keanan McGonigle is a third-year medical student at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana. He received his B.A. in Human Biology and Master of Public Policy from the University of Virginia. Keanan has a strong interest in climate change, health justice, and preventive medicine and ultimately plans to practice as a primary care physician working with underserved populations.