Third Rock from the Sun: Endocrinology and Climate Change

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Endocrine News speaks with Daniel Oppenheim, MD, who represents the Endocrine Society on the Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health, which consists of dozens of medical associations that have joined together to heal the planet as well as their patients.

 

The Endocrine Society recently joined nearly 30 medical associations who make up the Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health — an organization focusing on the science behind climate change and public health. Whether it is extreme weather events and temperatures, wildfires, food-related or insect-born infection, or air and water quality, human-caused climate change has already harmed millions and threatens the health of everyone.

Daniel Oppenheim, PhD, MD, a clinical endocrinologist at Maine Medical Center, Scarborough, Maine, represents the Endocrine Society on the Consortium’s Steering and Policy Committees and spoke with Endocrine News about its efforts to lead clinicians in the fight against this great challenge to public health.

Endocrine News:  How did you come the represent the Society on the Consortium?

Daniel Oppenheim: I’ve been involved with the Endocrine Society for almost 35 years. I first joined when I was a fellow in 1986, and I’ve had various roles at the Society ever since.

I have also been involved with work around climate change with a number of organizations for many years. My personal view of being a doctor is that it involves much more than taking care of patients one-on-one. I see my role as a physician to include caring for the health of my community, of my country, and of my planet as all part of the same spectrum. I don’t really differentiate between caring for patients and caring for the planet. And when I look around and see one of the greatest existential threats to human survival, namely global climate change, it makes me want to do something about it.

“I see my role as a physician to include caring for the health of my community, of my country, and of my planet as all part of the same spectrum. I don’t really differentiate between caring for patients and caring for the planet. And when I look around and see one of the greatest existential threats to human survival, namely global climate change, it makes me want to do something about it.” – Daniel Oppenheim, PhD, MD, clinical endocrinologist, Maine Medical Center, Scarborough, Maine

I learned about the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health fairly recently. We hear a lot of talk about the effects of climate change on infrastructure and the economy, but not so much about the effects of climate change on human health, and that’s really one of the greatest threats there is.

So, when the Endocrine Society was invited to join the Consortium, and I was asked to be their representative, I readily accepted.

EN: How can individual endocrinologists play a role as advocates to our elected officials?

DO: The first step is to recognize that global climate change is a terribly important issue, and that human health is being impacted by global climate change. So, education, getting the word out that this is a crisis that’s relevant to human health, and we as physicians, scientists, and people who care about human health, is key.

Once we understand that’s the case then we have to think about what to do about it. And there’s a whole host of ways people can get involved in advocating for policy changes that will hopefully mitigate the progression of global warming, of global climate change. Some people will feel comfortable educating others, just getting the word out. Some people will feel comfortable writing letters to the editor or op-ed pieces in their local papers, as issues arise or contacting their legislative representatives, either at the state or federal level.

Our hope is that as specific pieces of legislation or regulatory policy come up for public comment, we will be able to mobilize our membership to get the word to policy makers and legislators that we care about this as physicians, as scientists, as endocrinologists. So, the more people know, and the more people feel motivated to do something, the more we can involve our membership when specific issues arise.

EN: The Consortium’s website has fact sheets about how climate change impacts health. One way to impact change is to reduce carbon emissions from transportation because traffic-related air pollutants increase the risk of conditions such as heart disease, asthma, and diabetes. What other climate issues are important for endocrinology?

DO: There are many. For example, extreme weather events such as floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and their impacts on the energy infrastructure. We saw this when Hurricane Katrina produced widespread power outages and large numbers of people were displaced. People with diabetes who required insulin and either couldn’t get it or couldn’t refrigerate it because there was no power, really suffered badly. So, when the supply chain for critical medications goes down, when power goes down to prevent refrigeration of medicines, particularly insulin, then people with diabetes suffer. And this is certainly going to happen more and more.

Another important area that endocrinologists care about involves endocrine-disrupting chemicals. For example, in these huge California fires, it’s not just wood that burns. It’s plastic that burns. When houses go up in flames, plastic siding goes up in flames and all kinds of other plastics ignite as well, releasing a host of toxins, many of which are endocrine-disrupting chemicals. They eventually fall as ash entering the water supply, polluting the air and soil, and eventually we breathe, drink, and eat them. The massive fires and the associated winds, both in part the result of global climate change, have the potential to spread endocrine-disrupting chemicals throughout the globe.

In addition, it is clear that the effects of global climate change are not equally distributed. Communities of color, poor, marginalized and disadvantaged communities suffer disproportionately. The Endocrine Society cares deeply about equality of health and healthcare, so this issue matters to us for this reason as well.

EN: What else does the Society hope for with its new partnership with the Medical Consortium?

DO: Decision makers at all levels really do listen to doctors and scientists, and we have a degree of credibility that’s unique. It’s important for us to leverage this unique position, as a voice for health, for science-based and data-based policy, and to use our voice to effect positive change in the world.

“Decision makers at all levels really do listen to doctors and scientists, and we have a degree of credibility that’s unique. It’s important for us to leverage this unique position, as a voice for health, for science-based and data-based policy, and to use our voice to effect positive change in the world.” – Daniel Oppenheim, PhD, MD, clinical endocrinologist, Maine Medical Center, Scarborough, Maine

The Endocrine Society, under the direction of Mila Becker, has a very strong advocacy program, and they are extremely active in all sorts of advocacy issues. The role of the Consortium is to work in the areas of education and advocacy around climate change on behalf of its member medical societies that themselves have more specific areas of focus.

So, the Consortium can do that work on behalf of the Endocrine Society. It’s a two-way street. The Consortium can help do the work and provide the educational materials and action alerts, and the Endocrine Society, both itself and through its members, can serve to raise the issue to a higher level.

Learn more about the work of The Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health at: medsocietiesforclimatehealth.org.

—Fauntleroy Shaw is a freelance writer based in Carmel, Ind. She is a regular contributor to Endocrine News.

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