Cleveland Clinic Alumna Urges Action on Climate Change

And the need to respond to protect Americans' health


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Giving keynote address at the Climate Crisis and Clinical Practice Symposium hosted by the New England Journal of Medicine in Boston, MA. Photo Date: 2/13/20

A nationally recognized expert on climate change and health, Renee N. Salas, MD, MPH, MS (’09), is the lead author on a pivotal climate change report, tracking the ways in which climate change is affecting the health of Americans.

The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change Brief for the United States of America, published every year with U.S.-specific data from the yearly global Lancet Countdown report, emphasizes a critical need to respond to climate change to reduce and prevent its impact on Americans’ health and mortality. In the report, Dr. Salas and her co-authors outline their recommendations for action, and three themes are especially relevant in 2020.

“First, prevention is key,” she says. “The pandemic exposed the fragility of our public health infrastructure, our healthcare system, and our supply chains. Climate change is exposing these same weaknesses. The human-caused production of greenhouse gases –driven largely by the combustion of fossil fuels – harms human health and disrupts our healthcare systems. We have to get to that root cause of action to prevent the worst health outcomes of climate change, and now is our time to act.”

Second, “we are all interconnected. Like with the COVID-19 virus, the greenhouse gases driving climate change don’t respect borders – and what we do in one country affects another. We all are susceptible to these invisible threats, and we need to coordinate action across sectors and countries to strive towards our goal of achieving optimal health and wellbeing for everyone on the globe.”


Third, “our health ‘voice’ is so important – being on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the voices of healthcare providers. We have a powerful voice to speak up for the health of our patients. Research has shown that doctors are the most trusted to make the connections between climate and health, and nurses are one of the most trusted professions overall.”

Discussing the 2019 Lancet Countdown U.S. Policy Brief with the Chair of House Climate Crisis Committee, Chairwoman Kathy Castor. Other individual in photo is Dr. Jeremy Hess (Senior Author of the 2019 Lancet Countdown U.S. Policy Brief who works at the University of Washington). Photo Date: 11/19/19

The global Lancet report is an important way of conveying these messages, she says. “It is one of the world’s leading publications, committed to tracking the progress of climate change, with health as the central focus.”

Dr. Salas, the American report’s lead author since 2018, collaborates with a working group of more than 60 organizations. “The core team of authors paint the initial brush strokes using the data, focusing on what’s most relevant, and this is further painted into the final evidence-based policy recommendations by experts from around the country. Other countries also write briefs, which are all released at the same time as the global report.”


After the reports were released in 2019, Dr. Salas met with key individuals on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and months before the December 2020 release, she testified in a virtual hearing before the congressional House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

“Hopefully, we can pave a pathway for climate policy discussions to be framed through a health lens,” she says. “The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly shown us that when we ignore science and delay action, people die. The same is true of the climate crisis. While it may be occurring over a more extended timeline, I see ways in which it is affecting the health and lives of my patients today.”

Dr. Salas is Affiliated Faculty at the Harvard Global Health Institute; a Yerby Fellow at the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; an emergency medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital; and an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School. Describing her Cleveland Clinic training as “phenomenal,” she says she was inspired by too many faculty members to name, but was especially impacted by her longitudinal preceptor, J. Harry “Bud” Isaacson, MD, one of her deans, Kathleen Franco, MD, and her advisor, Margaret McKenzie, MD.

“The Lerner College program truly trains medical students to push the envelope into new areas,” she says.

Related Articles