If we don’t reduce the billions of tons of carbon dioxide pouring into the atmosphere each year, there will be significant health impacts, argued former Vice President Al Gore and some of the world’s leading scientists, at a summit organized at the Carter Center in Atlanta. The first half of the conference explained the challenges facing the world if we surpass an increase of 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit), which is seen as a key thresh hold: the accelerated spread of infectious diseases, less nutritious food, more challenging mental health problems, and more dangerous air pollution. In the second half of the day, Gore and others offered some solutions — to mitigate climate change, and thereby reduce expected health impacts, and better anticipate and manage the coming public health challenges.
A number of scientists called for boosting the amount of climate change adaptation funds that go to health. Of the $1.2 billion collected for adaptation by the United Nations, only 2 percent of that goes to health measures, said Dr. Kristie Ebi, University of Washington. And, unfortunately, there is almost no serious research being conducted on the health impacts of climate change.
Dr. Rainer Sauerborn, Heidelberg Institute of Public Health, made the important point that there is no one-sized-fits-all solution for climate adaptation. Every community’s challenges will be unique, which means support for local research and action is vital. He wondered why there were no researchers from the Middle East or Africa at the conference.
Public health officials made the case for increased spending on public health surveillance and early warning systems. In Beijing, for a period of time, the U.S. embassy provided the one reliable indicator of air pollution levels in the city. Its feed has spurred activism and Chinese government action to better monitor and reduce air pollution. If more developing world cities had more reliable air pollution monitoring and alert systems, those particularly vulnerable to poor air could be instructed to stay inside on really bad days. These systems also generate demand for air quality improvements.
With more funding, public health organizations can better monitor disease threats as well. For example, the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) is monitoring the precursors of vibrio, an aquatic pathogen, explained Dr. Jan Semenza, and sending alerts to communities before a vibrio outbreak strikes. Testing the system against Swedish data, they’ve found “there is an epidemic signal we can predict.”
Dr. Howard Frumkin, University of Washington, a leading environmental health specialist, and co-editor of Making Healthy Places, called for doctors and scientists in the public health field to seek partners “outside their comfort zones” and reach out to those working on the built environment, like planners, landscape architects, and architects.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was represented by Dr. George Luber, who explained the tools the CDC has available for communities planning for health impacts, such as the Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE) framework, which also includes technical assistance. Luber said the role of the CDC is to provide accessible scientific guidance and decision-making support tools.
But it’s important that all communities get support for dealing with their climate and health challenges in the future. Catherine Flowers, with the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, said parts of Alabama were like a “third world country,” with sewage bubbling up and contaminating front lawns. “This is where environmental justice and climate intersect.”
And Gary Cohen, Health Care Without Harm, thinks the healthcare sector can come together as a single force for good. Given the sector accounts for 17 percent of the U.S. economy, it’s poised to play a lead role. Gundersen Health in Wisconsin, which was almost entirely fueled by coal a few years ago, now runs on power generated from wind and bio-waste. Cohen said in more than 200 cities, the healthcare sector is the biggest employer. Associations of these firms are moving to renewable energy and divesting from any fossil fuel stocks.
These companies can help shift the U.S. to a more sustainable, less polluting form of energy production, and speak out about the health risks with climate change. “If we mobilize the health community, we have a massive army at hand. Doctors and nurses are among the most trusted people in America. We will be unstoppable,” argued Cohen.
However, despite all the positive talk about how we can manage the coming challenges, many scientists at the conference agreed that there are many “unknown unknowns” looming out there. For example, there are new worries about the micro-organisms now dormant under the vast permafrost. Just ten years ago, no one knew the nutritional value of many important crops would be reduced in a higher carbon atmosphere. What other impacts are lurking out there? There is much that still can’t be predicted.
The most important investment now may be to dramatically boost funding on scientific research, and monitoring and early warning systems.