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Following a surge in the number and intensity of climate change-related health harms – from exposure to extreme weather and heat waves to worsening air pollution and the spread of insect-borne disease – 74 medical and public-health groups recently aligned to push for a series of consensus commitments to combat climate change, bluntly defined by the organizations as "a health emergency." 

The Call to Action on Climate Health and Equity: A Policy Action Agenda released by the groups, which includes the National Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Public Health Association, represents a back-to-basics approach for an internal Democratic climate debate that has so far revolved around the liberal precepts of the Green New Deal.

"The health, safety and well-being of millions of people in the U.S. have already been harmed by human-caused climate change, and health risks in the future are dire without urgent action to fight climate change," the medical and public health groups wrote in their climate agenda, shared with The Associated Press in advance of its release.

The groups are pressing elected officials and presidential candidates to "meet and strengthen U.S. commitments" under the 2015 United Nations climate agreement. They're also pushing for some form of carbon pricing, although without any reference to potential taxation of emissions, and "a plan and timeline for reduction of fossil fuel extraction in the U.S."

The agenda calls out 10 specific policy priorities, including the following:

  • Meeting and strengthening greenhouse gas emission reduction commitments and supporting the Paris Agreement.

  • Transitioning rapidly away from the use of coal, oil and natural gas to clean, safe and renewable energy and energy efficiency. 

  • Emphasizing active transportation in the transition to zero-carbon transportation systems.

  • Promoting healthy, sustainable and resilient farms and food systems, forests and natural lands.

  • Ensuring that all U.S. residents have access to safe and affordable drinking water and a sustainable water supply.

  • Investing in policies that support a just transition for workers and communities adversely impacted by climate change and the transition to a low-carbon economy.

  • Engaging the health sector voice in the call for climate action.

  • Incorporating climate solutions into all healthcare and public health systems.

  • Building resilient communities in the face of climate change.

  • Investing in climate in a way that benefits health, and health in a way that doesn't harm the climate.

Other groups signing onto the list of climate policy priorities include the American Lung Association, the American College of Physicians and multiple state-level and academic public health organizations. That the agenda's endorsing groups do not operate with "a political axe to grind" could help them draw more attention to climate change, said Ed Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University.

For voters who view climate change "primarily as a threat to things in the environment, like polar bears," talking about the issue as a health problem could reframe their thinking, Maibach said.

"It's incredibly helpful when health professionals point out the actual reality of the situation, point out that this is also a threat to our health and well-being now ... and it's likely to get worse, much worse, if we don't take action to address it," he said.

The Call to Action on Climate Health and Equity is a package of policies that together will lower current and future health harms from air pollution and climate change, while also substantially improving the health of people and communities across the nation, increasing health equity, reducing healthcare costs and building a climate-resistant health system. The case for these policies is supported by recent research, including the following:

  • The most recent National Climate Assessment, which says reducing greenhouse gas emissions would save thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars from health-related economic benefits each year.

  • New research published in Sciences Advances, which shows meeting the Paris Climate Agreement goal of limiting warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius would save lives by reducing heat-related deaths and morbidity.

  • A new Nature study showing that if greenhouse gas emissions continue rising at current rates, dengue fever is projected to spread throughout the southern United States by 2050. The disease already kills roughly 10.000 people and infects as many as 100 million around the world each year.

  • Recent findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which finds that transitioning to clean, renewable energy will substantially reduce deaths from air pollution, which currently kills more than 100,000 people in the U.S. each year.

To read the full Call to Action on Climate Health and Equity, the complete list of endorsers and statements of support, Click Here.

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