Climate change consistently polls low among Americans' priorities, and it can be difficult for citizens to grasp how greenhouse gases affect their lives, unlike more directly visceral challenges such as gun violence or income inequality,

Yesterday afternoon, President Obama, with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, tried to bring the topic down to a level that average Americans can understand by distilling the health impacts of climate change during a roundtable discussion at Howard University.

Obama spoke of the hazards that emissions pose to the human body, citing threats to people with asthma and spikes in insect-borne diseases rarely found in North America.

"There are a whole host of public health impacts that are going to hit home," he said, before announcing a White House summit on climate change and public health, which Murthy will head later this spring. "All of our families are going to be vulnerable. You can't cordon yourself off from air or from climate."

Murthy, confirmed by the Senate in December, said climate change leads to more intense heat waves, more particulates from wildfires clouding the atmosphere, longer allergy seasons and, in turn, more asthma attacks.

"Whether it's promoting heart health through nutrition and physical activity or preventing disease outbreaks through vaccinations, prevention really is our goal, and that is true here with climate change," Murthy said.

The White House unveiled a draft report on issues such as food- and water-borne diseases, air pollution and threats to vulnerable groups like the young, old and elderly. The administration also announced it will expand its Climate Data Initiative to more than 150 databases and unveiled a pledge from 30 medical and public health schools nationwide to train students on the links between climate change and medicine.

survey last month of 5,500 members of the American Thoracic Society -- an association of doctors, nurses and health experts -- found about 90 percent think climate change is real and 65 percent believe it is directly related to patients' care, either significantly or moderately.

"Really, there has been a groundswell at the intersection of health, data and climate change," said John Holdren, the White House science adviser, at a separate conference yesterday.

Climate-driven impacts are "everyday issues," added Brian Deese, an adviser to the president, on a call with reporters. "The most salient arguments around climate change are associated with health impacts," he said.

Heartland Institute: "Cold kills far more people than heat"
This administration has long used public health risks as a backdrop for its climate policies.

Last June, the weekend before EPA posted its draft proposal for the Clean Power Plan (CPP) to regulate emissions from the country's power sector, the president spoke at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., after visiting children with asthma.

Regulating power plant emissions would avert 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks in the CPP's first year, he said at the time, adding that shifting the U.S. power supply to renewables is "one of the best things we can do for our economy, our health and our environment."

Craig Idso, a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, the free-market-minded group that has long challenged climate policy, said the announcements yesterday revealed the administration's "disdain and contempt of scientific truth."

"Cold kills far more people than heat," Idso said in a statement. "Facts never seem to matter to ideologues, even if their actions cause more harm than good."

But Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association, said climate change is harming health today. "Now is the time for bold action to protect our health and our communities from the dangerous impacts of carbon pollution and climate change -- especially the health of our most vulnerable populations, children, seniors and people with chronic diseases like asthma," he said.

Last year was the hottest in recorded history, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And, according to a 2013 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more Americans die from heat waves every year than hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and earthquakes combined (ClimateWire, Nov. 18, 2013).

"As we continue to ensure the resilience of our health care system, we are working to prepare our health care facilities to handle the effects of a changing planet," Obama said in a statement Monday, officially naming this week National Public Health Week. "Climate change is no longer a distant threat. Its effects are felt today, and its costs can be measured in human lives."

By deploying an emissions-cutting plan, the United States could save $6 billion to $14 billion every year by 2020, depending on the policy's details and how lawmakers went about achieving the emission reductions, according to a study on the health benefits of climate regulation published last year (ClimateWire, Nov. 26, 2014). Those savings would add up to $40 to $93 per metric ton in reduced carbon emissions.

EPA estimates that its plan, assuming it is fully implemented, will save $55 billion to $93 billion in 2030 as health problems driven by toxic airborne particulates fall.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500