When talking about climate change, the causes and environmental impacts typically take center stage. The crucial piece missing from the conversation on a political level is the human toll—until now. In a roundtable discussion this week at Howard University, President Barack Obama finally admitted what many have known for ages: climate change should be examined as a public health issue as well as an environmental one.

barack obama on cnn

The big admission came in a rather casual way. “I think we’ve always known—or at least in the 20th century we’ve understood—that environment has an impact on public health,” the President told CNN’s Sanjay Gupta. Rather than throwing around statistics and averages, Obama took the opportunity to make the discussion intensely personal by waxing poetic about his memories of his daughter Malia suffering from asthma attacks when she was younger.

By making this connection, Obama hopes to inspire Americans to focus on the impacts on future generations as they consider their own actions as they relate to climate change. “There are a whole host of public health impacts that are going to hit home, so we’ve got to do better in protecting vulnerable Americans,” Obama continued. “Ultimately, though, all of our families are going to be vulnerable. You can’t cordon yourself off from air or climate.”

Related: President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union calls climate change the greatest threat to future generations

With any luck, Obama’s remarks will inspire government officials and other leaders in public health to move forward on climate change legislation with health in mind. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has already acknowledged that the impacts of climate change on health will depend on a multitude of factors, including “the effectiveness of a community’s public health and safety systems to address or prepare for the risk and the behavior, age, gender, and economic status of individuals affected,” according to the agency’s website.

Looking at climate change from a different perspective, as a personal problem rather than an industrial one, is likely to help spur more people into action. Hopefully, policymakers will get on board and, as Obama suggested, “be bold and recognize and trust the kind of innovative spirit that the American people have always displayed.”


Image via Shutterstock and CNN via screengrab