By Aran Thiravialingam and Cheryl Holder, Florida Clinicians for Climate Action
The endless news around heat and extreme weather events can be overwhelming.
The World Meteorological Organization reported July 2023 was the hottest Northern Hemisphere summer ever measured. August 2023 was about 1.5 degrees Celsius — 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit — warmer than pre-industrial averages. What makes this important is that this temperature increase is what most of the world agreed not to exceed in the Paris Accords.
What we are observing is alarming. This is stark evidence that we must act now to protect our planet and ourselves.
Climatologist Andrew Weaver, a professor in the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of Victoria in Canada, did not mince words: “It’s time for global leaders to start telling the truth. We will not limit warming to 1.5 C; we will not limit warming to 2.0 C. It’s all hands on deck now to prevent 3.0 C global warming — a level of warming that will wreak havoc worldwide.”
Simply put, extreme heat puts human health at risk.
As the heat rises, so should our voices. In addition to clinicians’ primary duty of educating our patients about extreme heat, we must also advocate with policymakers to find solutions that will stop climate change at the root.
Policies such as the Heat Standard that the Miami-Dade County Commission is considering should follow the scientific evidence and align with the recommendations of the National Weather Service, which classifies a 90°F heat index as dangerous to people in high-risk groups, such as outdoor workers who could experience sunstroke, heat cramps or heat exhaustion. The heat index combines temperature and humidity. With high humidity, the body is simply unable to cool down given the moisture in the air.
Using an air temperature of 95°F as the threshold for shade, water and rest is not adequate. Combined with typical humidity values, 95°F would feel like 113°F. That poses a danger to outdoor workers and to the public in general.
As clinicians, we see the effects of planetary warming and we must help our patients survive and thrive.
Here are some facts about the ways heat can affect you, and tips to protect yourself.
▪ Dehydration. Because of inadequate fluids and electrolytes, dehydration manifests as increased thirst, lethargy and headaches. If you believe you are dehydrated, drink water or an electrolyte drink.
▪ Heat exhaustion. Due to water and electrolyte loss, the body sweats to cool in extreme heat. In addition to the symptoms of dehydration, heat exhaustion will also present with dizziness, nausea, palpitations and muscle cramps. Rehydrating and moving to a cooler location is best if one is experiencing heat exhaustion.
Those symptoms can lead to heat stroke, which happens when the body is unable to regulate body temperature. The body is no longer able to sweat, so it cannot cool itself. This can cause a fever above 104°F, vomiting, seizures, confusion, loss of consciousness and, potentially, death.
If you suspect someone is suffering from heat stroke, call emergency services. Until they arrive, move the person to a cooler location, use ice packs against the skin, cool their body with hose water or place them in a shallow tub of cool water. Oral fluids can be given if the person is conscious.
We can and must protect ourselves, our patients and those most vulnerable from extreme heat. But it is equally important, if not more, to act on climate change by addressing the root of the problem.
Individual actions are noble. However, they only go so far. Be certain to join organizations dedicated to fighting climate change — now — and bringing about a sustainable and equitable future.
Our health is at risk.
Aran Thiravialingam, practicum lead for Florida Clinicians for Climate Action’s C-HOT Team, is a second-year medical student at Florida International University’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine. Dr. Cheryl Holder is the interim executive director at Florida Clinicians for Climate Action.
This opinion piece was originally published by the Miami Herald, which is a media partner of The Invading Sea. If you are interested in submitting an opinion piece to The Invading Sea, email Editor Nathan Crabbe at email@example.com. Sign up for The Invading Sea newsletter by visiting here.