Dr. Wendy Ring understands that climate change is more than what the public sees on the evening news. As a rural family physician trained in both medicine and public health, she left her practice in 2011 to focus solely on the climate issues that are threatening the health of the world.
For over thirty years Dr. Ring worked as a doctor and focused her attention on taking care of people who weren’t able to pay for their own health care. In 1990 she founded a mobile clinic in California that helped provide the uninsured, the homeless and undocumented. She served as Medical Director until 2011 and then began working on climate issues. Dr. Ring has been named one of America’s Five Best Doctors and the nation’s Best Healer by Reader’s Digest. For her work the U.S. Congress, the California and American Medical Association have recognized her. She also works with Climate 911, a group of health professionals that tour the country and use their knowledge to educate people about their health and climate change.
“This is not a political issue,” Dr. Ring says about climate change, “It’s a public health issue and I have a professional responsibility.” Dr. Ring became interested in climate change after she realized that people would continue to have their health affected. According to Dr. Ring and various research studies, issues such as water being contaminated by floods, heat strokes caused by extreme summer heat, an increase in mold and a rise in the ozone level that will lead to problems in people who suffer from asthma.
Dr. Ring says that there is always new information about climate change and that the health community is very aware of the problems facing the public. “In Nebraska alone the drought has affected water quality. It’s unusually warm this time of year which leads to more mosquitos which in turn leads to diseases transmitted by water and the climate.” She points to diseases like the West Nile Virus having claimed several lives. The climate change and drought also explains the vicious wildfires that have been occurring with more and more frequency this summer. She also mentions harmful blue and green algae growing in recreation lakes that can cause liver damage.
The Climate911 website details the various other climate and health issues caused by the environmental changes. In addition to water contamination, severe storms are becoming more of an issue. It was reported after Hurricane Sandy that cases of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning increased tenfold due to the use of generators after power was lost. The displacement of people has also been on the rise since 2005 because of extreme weather. These displacements cause outbreaks of infectious diseases and can make chronic diseases like asthma, heart failure, diabetes and mental illness worse.
Dr. Ring’s presentations can vary depending on her audience. When she speaks with other medical professionals, such as hospital staff or public health departments she tends to use more technical dialogue, she employs the use of graphs and data that supports the evidence. When she presents to the general public, she strives to make it less technical. One of her biggest concerns is that there is a massive gap between the public and doctors.
Dr. Ring believes that bridging the gap between these two groups could be the key to slowing down climate change. “It helps people understand climate change differently,” she says. The public gains a better understanding of the health risks and they can help change the politics of environmental bills. “We need to begin working on using more wind and solar energy instead of fossil fuel,” she says, “We also need to start opposing any projects that send fossil fuels to other countries.” Dr. Ring makes the point that it doesn’t matter where the fossil fuel is released into the environment. “The change has to be done by our government.”
Dr. Ring firmly believes that although the damage already done to the environment is irreversible, we can slow the process. “Individual actions like driving a Prius or changing our light bulbs won’t be enough. We have to make it clear to elected officials that they need to act.” Dr. Ring warns that we are in a “critical time,” and things will only continue to get worse. There will be more disruption and contamination of food, water and air. Her fear is that the level of sickness and death will grow to a level where simple attention will be too late.
According to climate911.org the group of doctors wants several things by 2030. They would like to see a 50% decrease in motor vehicle emissions, 50% of all electricity to be generated from clean renewable sources. Essentially that means there needs to be a halt to construction of new coal burning plants, and exploration for fossil fuels.
Another goal for Dr. Ring wants is organizing health professionals. “There is no disagreement that this is an issue,” she says. Right now there is no platform for these medical professionals to take a stand. Dr. Ring hopes to help give them this by continuing her lectures and work, but also by teaching them the importance of their involvement in the issue.
Dr. Ring knows climate change is often a complex subject and that many people still have difficulties grasping the details. She wants people to know that drastic changes in the environment will continue to occur unless the general public and the medical community band together. “Climate change is causing sickness and death in the U.S. right now,” she warns. Dr. Ring spoke at UNMC School of Public Health Friday September 13th. For more information and other speaking dates visit climate911.org.