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Wisconsin health providers say climate change is a medical issue

Heat waves, cold spells could harm people, along with dangerous flooding, according to Wisconsin Health News panelists

person holding "There is no Planet B" sign
Li-An Lim (CC BY)

Last year, top medical journals warned that climate change, not COVID-19, was the greatest threat to public health.

In the Midwest, climate change is likely to bring extreme temperatures and flooding, along with more mosquito and tick diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Tuesday, Wisconsin elected officials and health care providers talked about using more renewable energy to curb warming of the atmosphere and oceans.

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“Climate change is here,” said Dr. Andrew Lewandowski, of Wisconsin Health Professionals for Climate Action.

“There are climate cascades, thresholds and tipping points that will be outside of our control, and then, the only thing humans can do is adapt to climate change. There will be no more prevention,” Lewandowski said during a Wisconsin Health News panel. The panel also included Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Monica Nakielski of Advocate Aurora Health and state Rep. Supreme Moore Omokunde, D-Milwaukee.

Statewide, 69 percent of people are aware that global warming is happening, according to a 2020 University of Wisconsin-Madison report which said people are “eager” to hear from health professionals.

Lewandowski, who is also a pediatrician at Group Health Cooperative in Madison, said his young patients come to him for sports clearance to participate in twice a day sports practices that may occur on days when there is extreme heat. That is a direct impact of climate change, he said. Indirect examples he cited include irritability and depression, which might cause domestic violence and child abuse to increase on really hot days.

Some Wisconsin health care systems are operating differently to try and slow climate change. Advocate Aurora hopes to rely on all renewable electricity by 2030, said Monica Nakielski, director of sustainability, who pointed out that Sheboygan and Milwaukee are among the nation’s most polluted cities for either ozone or year-round particle pollution, which can cause asthma and heart problems.

Underscoring the threat, Nakielski pointed to the 2013 death of a 9-year-old girl living in London who died after an asthma attack and cardiac arrest. Her death certificate listed air pollution as a cause of death. And new research published in the New York Times suggests that even low levels of soot can be deadly for older people.

Communities of color and neighborhoods with fewer resources are disproportionately impacted by climate change, said Rep. Omokunde. Not only because they often have poorer health to begin with, he said, but also because they will have to spend more money to stay warm or cool.

“This is exactly an issue of equity,” said Barnes, who chairs the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change. “I try to make sure when we have those conversations, equity, that we talk about climate change.”

Task force recommendations include ways to adapt to and reduce the effects of climate change across nine focus areas:

  • Climate Justice & Equity
  • Energy
  • Transportation
  • Agriculture
  • Resilient Systems
  • Clean Economy
  • Education
  • Food Systems
  • Forestry

The recommendations call for policy changes and executive actions among Wisconsin’s state agencies, as well as increasing or providing funding for a variety of proposals.