Their View | Climate change is major health threat

October 15, 2013 

How far should a doctor to go to address the health challenges of her patients? For Dr. Wendy Ring, a physician who has worked for decades caring for the medically underserved in Northern California, the answer is quite literally across the country — by bike.

On Tuesday, Ring will arrive in Johnstown with her husband on a tandem bicycle, riding through western Pennsylvania as part of a monthslong speaking tour from Washington state to Washington D.C. No, she is not talking about Obamacare, nor is she raising money for cancer research or other worthy causes. Her purpose is to raise the volume on, as she puts it, “The biggest health threat of our century: climate change.”

That’s right: climate change is not just about rising seas and wild weather, it is also a health hazard, one that is already affecting people worldwide.

In her presentations, Ring connects the dots between individual health problems and global warming. For example, increasing rates of allergies and asthma are linked to more pollen and mold associated with warmer, wetter weather. More frequent flooding overwhelms sewage and water treatment facilities leading to water contamination that results in an increase in infections, rashes, diarrhea, poisoning and cancer.

Climate change is a health hazard, and the prescription is to embrace a healthier lifestyle. Ring’s bicycle ride is just one example of how we can begin to move away from our dependence on the fossil fuels that are, literally, killing us.

The emergence of physicians, nurses and other health professionals as leading voices in the call for action on climate change is a new development. But is it a good one? Should our doctors and nurses move beyond concern with individual patients in clinical encounters to a greater engagement in public debate? We think they must.

First, the role of climate change on the social, economic and environmental factors that affect public health have become clearer than ever before. In technical language, climate change is a “threat multiplier,” meaning that populations already at risk (the sick, the elderly, the poor) will suffer the most.

Second, physicians and other health professionals provide a crucial perspective. Not only are they respected members of the community with expertise on scientific issues, they are also on the front lines as they see the effect of large-scale processes on the health of their individual patients. Because of their position in our communities, Ring and others like her serve as eloquent moral witnesses to this significant health hazard.

Climate 911, the organization that Ring founded, is dedicated to the creation of a national network of health professionals to educate the public and policymakers about the health effects of climate change and the urgent need for action. We applaud her actions and urge everyone to hear her message, either in Johnstown on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the UPJ Living Learning Center or online at

Jesse Ballenger and Jonathan Brockopp teach in Penn State’s bioethics program; last March, they rode bicycles from State College to Washington, D.C., as part of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light (, a religious response to climate change. Their views do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.

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