Global Collaboration on Climate Change

Mailman School Forges Ties With Scientists in China and India

September 29, 2015

As the world prepares for the COP21 climate conference later this fall, there is growing awareness that concern for health is a powerful driver of policy around climate change. Helping build this momentum, this September, the Mailman School, which created the nation’s first academic program in climate and health, strengthened ties with government officials and academics from the world’s two most populous nations.

On September 8, the School signed an agreement with Tsinghua University in China to pursue joint research and educational exchange on climate and health. A little more than a week later, at the Mailman School, health scientists and officials from India joined their counterparts in New York to advance the research agenda around climate adaptation.

China Agreement Opens Door to Research Collaborations

China is increasingly working to curb severe pollution following decades of rapid economic growth. As one example, an ambitious plan aims to cut environmental pollutants in Beijing and nearby cities, home to more than 200 million people, by 20 percent. Academia is a part of this effort. The School of Environment at Tsinghua University, known as China’s MIT, has expertise in engineering challenges such as how to design power plants to reduce emissions. Recently, Tsinghua concluded that it needed a partner in environmental health, and Columbia’s Mailman School, with its track record of environmental research in China, was the natural choice.

The new agreement will promote research partnerships, student exchange, and the translation of science into policy. To celebrate the deal, Tsinghua organized a “Columbia Day” featuring presentations by Dean Linda P. Fried and Mailman School faculty to introduce the School and its scholarship. Deliang Tang, associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences, spoke about his research highlighting the health and economic benefits of lowering air pollution in the Chinese cities of Taiyuan and Tongliang. This urban-centered research has already been used by Chinese officials as an example of the health gains that can be achieved through sound environmental policies.

“Around the world, people are increasingly understanding that health science can provide the wind in the sails to develop solutions for climate change,” said Dean Fried.

Roundtable With Indian Experts Spotlights Local Context

Climate change is the perfect exemplar of a global issue. Yet, whether you are in Ahmedabad, India, or Manhattan, its impacts are felt on the local level. Organized by Kim Knowlton, assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences and senior scientist and Science Center deputy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, the September meeting highlighted research and outreach efforts with diverse settings but common goals, including an emphasis on lived experience. The meeting was one of a series hosted in New York City that week by NRDC as a part of its India-US Climate Resilience Partnership.

Policy action on the urban level is often galvanized by catastrophe. The New York City Panel on Climate Change formed in 2009, but adaptation efforts accelerated beginning in late 2012 after Superstorm Sandy, which Governor Andrew Cuomo called a “wake-up call” on climate change. Even so, officials are challenged to show New Yorkers why climate change matters here and now, in our backyards, on a personal level, and what we can do to prepare for it.

Katherine Grieg, senior policy advisor in the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, showed how she grounds climate change for New Yorkers, concretizing challenges like rising sea levels. Measurements at the Battery show that the water rose a foot in the last century, Grieg pointed out. By 2050 sea level will be another foot higher, at shin level; by the end of the century, it could be over our heads. Peggy Sheppard, director of the West Harlem-based environmental justice group WE ACT, underlined the importance of listening to community concerns—and ideas for how to address them. WE ACT organized community roundtables to talk through scenarios such as what they would do in a heat wave or power outage, and how they would help older and disabled residents.

India faced its own wake-up call in 2010 with the heat wave in Ahmedabad, which saw temperatures reach 117 degrees and over 1,300 excess deaths. With help from the NRDC, the city responded by creating the first heat wave early warning system in South Asia. A study released last year found the system was effective in reducing heat-related mortality. Other cities in the subcontinent have pursued similar efforts. Lipika Nanda, director of the Indian Institute of Public Health in Odisha, spoke about how her city of Bhubaneshwar engages residents who work in the sun. Instructing them not to stay indoors is not sufficient, she said. Government must help find alternate livelihoods for the workers.

Pat Kinney, director of Mailman’s Climate and Health Program, studies the health effects of rising temperatures in Manhattan; results show that longer and more severe heat waves add up to more deaths in the summer despite more mild winters. Ongoing research is looking at the consequences of elevated temperatures and humidity indoors. Vulnerable populations of low-income elderly are often stuck indoors without air conditioning where the heat can be even more extreme than it is outside. The health effects of climate change wrap around the world, but according to Kinney, scientists should never lose sight of the local context.

 “The most useful evidence for local decision makers is local evidence,” Kinney said. “Developing a local evidence base is a prerequisite for action.”