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By Dr. PAUL MORRISSEY
Recently, I received an invitation to speak at a press conference on climate change. The night before the event, my three children asked me, “Dad, what do you know about climate? Why are you a climate expert?”
“I’m not,” I told them, “but climate affects us all.”
As an organ transplantation surgeon for Rhode Island Hospital, I’m intimately aware of the potential disasters we face from climate change. When someone passes away and the family consents to donate their organs, I’m the person who they call to recover those organs and liberate two people from dialysis, hopefully giving them a longer and better quality life. While most of the donors are local, some have been flown in from as far as Bermuda and California.
Medicine is a complex endeavor and relies on a system of infrastructure to support it. If weather disasters due to climate change — severe storms, power outages and floods, to name a few — lead to failures of this infrastructure, there will be serious medical consequences. New Orleans is a stark example of this. Nearly a decade later, the medical system is still recovering from the damages caused by Hurricane Katrina, particularly regarding the delivery of the most complex types of care.
As climate change becomes a reality and similar climate-related disasters threaten Rhode Island, imagine the individual Rhode Islanders who can’t receive timely surgery because of power outages and blocked transportation routes.
Rhode Island also faces more immediate adverse health consequences of climate change. As average temperatures continue to rise, Rhode Island will experience longer heat waves and a drastic increase in the number of extreme heat days. The annual number of hot days (over 90 degrees Fahrenheit) is predicted to increase from about five now to nearly 60 by 2100.
Extreme heat days are already affecting an increasing number of people, particularly children, with asthma and heat stroke.
Climate change also affects the quality of life in the Ocean State. A healthy and thriving environment is an important benefit to living in Rhode Island, with its beautiful beaches and parks. As Rhode Island faces sea-level rise and other impacts of climate change that deface its beauty, it might become a less desirable place for raising a family and recreation, and highly skilled professionals might choose to work elsewhere.
Rhode Island Hospital and the medical field throughout the state employ 77,000 people. These people came to the state for a reason. Some of them came because of the top-notch universities or because Providence is a great city. Many came to Rhode Island because it’s a beautiful place to live. We’re attracted by the beaches, and we’re attracted by the environment. If that starts to lose its luster as the impacts of climate change become more real, then we’re going to have a tougher time recruiting talented physicians and medical researchers.
Currently, the General Assembly is the closest it has ever been to passing comprehensive climate legislation. Companion bills S2952 and H7904 set targets for cutting carbon emissions while empowering individual communities to adapt to sea-level rise and more intense weather. Our neighbors in Massachusetts and Connecticut have already seen great benefits from similar legislation. These bills provide Rhode Islanders with our most important weapon in the battle against climate change.
I’m not a climate expert, but I know that if we don’t take action on climate now, our state will lose crucial economic and medical opportunities.
Dr. Paul Morrissey is a kidney transplantation surgeon at Rhode Island Hospital.