As world leaders gather in Paris this week to negotiate a climate treaty, the Mailman School of Public Health and the White House are collaborating to spotlight the health impacts of climate change. The December 4 event comes during the 21st Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, better known as COP 21.
In the global spirit of the climate summit, leaders from Mailman School and the White House will gather to explore the possibilities of collaborations between nations, offering as a possible model in the School’s recent agreement with Tsinghua University, known as China’s MIT, to promote research partnerships, student exchange, and the translation of science into policy.
The Tsinghua partnership is only one of several ways the School is working on environmental health in China. Also, the World Economic Forum will release a report co-authored by Dr. Patrick Kinney, professor of Environmental Health Sciences, and director of the School’s Climate and Health Program, and Peter Muennig, MD, MPH, associate professor of Health Policy and Management, that outlines the health and economic benefits of clean air policies in China.
The Paris meeting follows two White House events earlier this year during which President Obama cited research by the Mailman School’s Climate and Health program, the first such academic program in the U.S. Since 2008, faculty have contributed seminal studies on the health risks from intensified heat waves and ozone to prolonged allergy season and the migration of insect-borne diseases. Research on climate change health effects related to air pollution and heat waves was cited in the Environmental Protection Agency’s “endangerment finding” that gave them authority to regulate CO2 as a health-relevant pollutant. Kinney also served as the sole health scientist on a New York City report on climate change resiliency.
Speaking at the April White House meeting, Kinney emphasized need for education in climate health. The Mailman School is building a global coalition of public health, medical, and nursing institutions committed to training a future generation of leaders who understand the health risks of climate change. The Mailman School’s program attracts some of the top masters and doctoral students, and has become, he says, “the go-to place for training in climate and health.” But as climate increasingly takes center stage, climate and health programs will need to broaden their focus to address topics such as urban health (cities around the world must prepare for climate change) and migration (according to new research, drought in Syria contributed to social unrest there).
The Forecast for COP21 and Beyond
As leaders from more than 190 countries gather at COP21, there is reason for optimism. A year ago, President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China agreed to ambitious set of climate goals, followed by a pledge by the G7 countries to phase out use of fossil fuels.
“Everybody views China and the U.S. as two key players in making COP work,” says Dr. Kinney, who has official observer status at the meeting. “The fact that we have these connections with the White House and China is great. It puts us in a nice position to accomplish meaningful change.”
Of course much of the discussion at COP21 will center on the challenges facing less developed nations. “The impacts of a changing climate will be felt most severely in developing nations,” says Kinney, “because of the infrastructure and capacity resilience is not as strong as in developed countries.”
Nowhere are more people facing this challenge than in South Asia. In September, the Mailman School hosted a meeting with public health officials from India to discuss resilience, specifically ways to mitigate the effects of heat waves, some which have reached 117 degrees. Working with the National Resources Defense Council, Dr. Kim Knowlton, assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences, has helped several municipalities there create an early warning system for heat waves, which has been effective at reducing deaths.
Just as important as building resilience, and perhaps more challenging, is finding a new model for economic development that confers benefits, including better health, without adding air pollution and greenhouses gasses that contribute to global warming, worsening health. Achieving this balance, says Kinney, “will require technology transfer from the rich countries to help them develop but in a cleaner and healthier way.”
Yet while there are encouraging signs that the world is ready to act on climate change at COP21, at least for now, health is not part of discussions. According to Dr. Kinney public health should be at the table with policymakers to help them make the right choices.
“I think public health should be more central to climate negotiations,” Dr. Kinney says, “particularly because in choosing how to adapt to and how to mitigate to climate change, there are many options, some which produce strong health benefits and some which don’t.”