Climate change is making us sick — and Big Pharma will profit

Rasa Kaye
January 13, 2020 - 3:00 pm
Graphic of pill filled with earths

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Fact: Scottish inventor James Watt jump-started the first Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s with his coal-fed steam engine boiler, and for the next two centuries, fossil fuels made many parts of the world a better place to live.

Another fact: Pumping greenhouse gases into the air will make many parts of the world uninhabitable for a large majority of species, and could begin to diminish our own civilization over the next half-century — or less.

Sorry, no fun facts when climate change is involved.

Members of the medical community are keeping a weather eye on how our rapidly warming world is already challenging our physical well-being.

“Climate change is our biggest public health threat right now because of its global effects and its pervasive effects on our health,” said Dr. Daniel Wolk, a member of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby and Philadelphia chapter volunteer for Physicians for Social Responsibility. “Addressing climate change and shifting to a clean energy economy is a huge public health opportunity that we need to take advantage of, and thus save lives and money while stopping climate change.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences both point to increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease; injuries and premature deaths in extreme weather events; changes in the geographical prevalence of food- and water-borne illnesses and other infectious diseases; and threats to mental health.

“Fossil fuel burning that’s advancing climate change is also affecting our health right now through the other pollutants that come from fossil fuels,” Wolk explained. “They’re responsible for increased risk for everything from heart attacks to premature birth to obesity and diabetes, along with asthma and respiratory disease.”

Climate change
Courtesy of CDC

Between 2030 and 2050, the World Health Organization forecasts that climate change will lead to about 250,000 additional deaths per year, due to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea or heat stress.

“Think about if you work outdoors as, say, a landscaper or a construction worker, or you’re an elderly person or a person who can’t afford to pay their electric bill and you don’t have air conditioning,” Wolk suggested. “The number of extreme heat days, when the heat index is over 105 degrees Fahrenheit, are expected to double within the next 50 years if we do nothing about climate change. And that means that more people will die of heat-related illnesses such as heat stroke or heat exhaustion. We’ve already seen emergency rooms flooded with heat effect victims when there have been heat waves in this country.”

There’s at least one major industry sector that’s looking ahead: Big Pharma.

CDP Global — a nonprofit that runs the global disclosure system for investors, companies, cities, states and regions to manage their environmental impacts — asks companies to identify “risks and opportunities” they’ll face because of climate change, and grades them on preparations.

It found that while pharmaceutical companies see potential risks — physical damage to facilities, supply-chain disruptions from increasingly powerful storms, and higher costs from new energy regulations — they also note an industry-wide opportunity: There’s more demand for drugs to treat climate change’s exacerbation of health problems.

Pharmaceutical R&D company AbbVie said, “Climate change may create a greater need for existing or even new products … higher temperatures and drought conditions are becoming extreme … Our immunology product line could see an increase in sales as a result.”

Eli Lilly pharmaceuticals echoed AbbVie: “These risks may drive an increased demand for ... our diabetes products.”

For Merck: “As the climate changes, there will be expanded markets for products for tropical and weather-related diseases, including water-borne illness.”

And Pfizer: “There could be an increased demand for products related to diseases impacted by climate change.”

Preparation is good. Prevention is better.

Wolk is working with his peers in the Citizens’ Climate Lobby to help the average person learn how to take action to protect public health and address climate change. He believes conversation is key.

“People need to talk with each other and to set an example,” he said, “something as simple as eating less meat. Explain when (you’re) at a restaurant that (you’ve) decided to eat less meat and engage with other diners and talk about why do that and advance that conversation — it’s really simple. Or switch to a more fuel efficient or even an electrically powered car, which will save you a lot of money as well as improve air quality and show people very visibly that you’re on board with improving the world of the future.”

So go ahead and chat it up with your friends, coworkers and really anyone else you come across — for our climate’s sake, and your own.