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School and Program Updates

School and Program Updates

Columbia Research on the Health Risks of Rising Temperatures Cited in White House Report

Yesterday, the federal government published its first report on climate and health, drawing on several studies by Mailman School faculty. Dr. Pat Kinney, director of the School’s Climate and Health program and professor in environmental health sciences, whose work has been cited by the White House from the administration’s initial exploration of the issue, is a contributing author to a chapter that highlights the health risks of rising temperatures.

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[Photo: Dr. Pat Kinney]

Dr. Kinney’s contribution to the chapter on rising temperatures leads with the “key finding” that hotter summers will lead to tens of thousands of premature heat-related deaths, which will not be offset by more mild winters. Evidence supporting the finding comes from a 2013 study by Dr. Kinney published in Nature Climate Change. The report also cites research by Dr. Jeffrey Shaman, associate professor of environmental health sciences, on the link between climate and diseases like West Nile that are transmitted by mosquitos, and by Dr. Kim Knowlton, assistant professor of environmental health sciences, that finds young children and older adults are particularly vulnerable to heat-related illness.

A multiagency effort by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, “The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment” is the most comprehensive volume of research on the topic to date — including scientific analysis of temperature-related death and illness, air quality impacts; extreme events; vector-borne disease; water-related illnesses; food safety, nutrition, and distribution; mental health and well-being — providing overwhelming evidence that as the climate continues to change, the risks to human health continue to grow, exacerbating existing threats and creating new challenges for population health.

Written under the framework of the President’s Climate Action Plan, the publication follows previous efforts by the Obama Administration to promote science and education around climate and health, most recently, at a joint White House-Mailman School dinner coinciding with the December Climate Summit in Paris. Established in 2008, the Mailman School’s Climate and Health program is the first such program in a school of public health and is funded in part by the first National Institutes of Health training grant in the field.

“This is the most comprehensive report ever published by the U.S. government on climate change and public health,” said Dr. Kinney. “This report brings together the best science on the subject and presents it in a way that is more broadly accessible that has been available from published literature.”

Seen in a single collection, the research on climate and health is impressive. Yet Dr. Kinney says much more is needed to make a difference — particularly research exploring interventions. The most promising of these, he says, look to simultaneously cut greenhouse gases and air pollution, while also improving health in other ways, for example by encouraging more active transport (walking; biking) in cities.

“We’ve done the research that shows climate change is bad for people and makes us sick,” noted Dr. Kinney. “Going forward, we need to find solutions that are good for the climate and good for health.”

These aspirations will soon reach a critical juncture when President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China are expected to sign the Paris Agreement on climate change on April 22, the first day the United Nations accord will be open for government signatures. Appropriately, the day they chose is also Earth Day.