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Pandemic Lessons Can Help in Fight Against Climate Change, Expert Says

Pandemic Lessons Can Help in Fight Against Climate Change, Expert Says
— "Prevention has to be prioritized"

Lessons learned from responding to the COVID-19 pandemic can also be applied to fighting climate change, Renee Salas, MD, MPH, said Tuesday at an event sponsored by the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and WGBH's The World.

The first lesson "is recognizing that prevention has to be prioritized," said Salas, an emergency physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Yerby Fellow at the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard. "We have to recognize that we have to stop things at the source ... We have to run upstream to prevent patients being in the river in the first place. And that is true both for the pandemic and for climate change."

"The second lesson learned is that we need a rapid, coordinated, global response," she said. "We have to recognize we are all in this together. And what we do here does impact countries and people halfway around the globe, and vice versa. And so the Paris [Climate Accord] in many ways can be viewed as the world's largest public health agreement."

Same Heat Wave, Different Outcomes

The effects of climate change -- even the same change -- on humans can vary depending on the region in which the change occurs, Salas said. A study of peak hospitalizations for heat-related illness "found that it differs across different regions in the U.S., so for Arizona -- which is typically really hot -- it begins around 101° F, but for Oregon, they see the spike at 81° F," said Salas. "That really puts into context the Pacific Northwest heat wave, given that they were seeing temperatures in Portland, Oregon of 116° F, so that is astronomically above what the previous peak was for heat-related illness."

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