Our country is already seeing the impact of climate change

Our country is already seeing the impact of climate change
© Getty Images

The United States’ decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement is an unjust endangerment of current and future generations’ basic right to health, now and in the future.

The U.S. was a critical negotiator and supporter of the agreement — which nearly 200 countries signed in 2015 — making national pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

The Paris agreement is an all-for-one accord in which responsibility cannot be shifted to the rest of the world. 


The U.S. — the only country to withdraw from the accord — is not on track to achieve the emissions goals to which we already committed (an approximate 25 percent reduction by 2025) and withdrawal will surely lead us to fall even further behind. 

Climate change is not a localized crisis and the U.S. will not be protected from its effects by location or wealth. 

Our country is already seeing the impact of climate change in raging winds and wildfires, more intense and frequent hurricanes, increased drought, worsening air pollution, decreased agricultural productivity and growing food and water scarcity. 

Each of the effects serve to exacerbate the others, creating vicious cycles: higher temperatures and wildfires worsen air pollution, and increased air pollution escalates the pace of climate change, for example. These effects cause heart and lung disease; decrease children’s IQ; increase asthma for all of us; and causes memory loss in older adults, among other impacts.  

And as temperatures get warmer, mosquito-borne infectious diseases will appear in the U.S., including Zika virus, dengue fever, and potentially malaria. 

Climate change will dramatically harm human health — your life and those of your children, family and friends — in innumerable, tragic ways. 


Warming temperatures and the associated increased carbon dioxide in the air is decreasing the nutritional content of grains and rice, limiting the ability of billions to maintain a healthy diet. 

Air pollution will take a significant toll on our breathing, our hearts, our brains, and our lungs; the effects will be life-threatening for those who already have heart disease or asthma or are frail. Today’s ‘heat waves’ will become ongoing temperatures, with people unable to survive long-term in the kinds of heat we now regularly see around the world.  

Without global efforts to meet the Paris agreement, everything that we see today will only become more extreme and life-threatening over time. 

We know enough scientifically to prevent the impacts of these changes on health and lives to some degree — let’s get going and enact what we know is needed.  

If we do not move to prevent the impact of climate change, the costs to treatment — if that is even possible — will be significantly higher than the costs of prevention.  

While our public health system is currently not enabled to respond adequately, it could be if we made the significant investments needed. 

Most of our medical systems, including hospitals, are not prepared to weather major storms, and are actively contributing to global warming. 

Every day we are seeing new, previously unimaginable disasters which medical and public health professionals are unprepared to handle.

It is not too late to still work towards the Paris agreement. Encouragingly, more than a dozen governors — of both red and blue states — announced their intent to still uphold the Paris Agreement guidelines in their states. 

And the withdrawal has a one-year waiting period, and will not go into effect until November 2020. We still have the opportunity to lead the world in protecting human health futures in the face of a warmed climate. Our children’s and grandchildren’s futures depend on it.

Linda P. Fried, M.D., MPH is the dean at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.