The Heat Is On: Colloquium Forges Collaborations Between Climate and Health

Heat Waves, Zika, and Food Insecurity Discussed at Health and Climate Colloquium

June 14, 2016

On May 19, India experienced the highest temperature ever recorded: a blistering 124 degrees Fahrenheit in Phalodi, Rajasthan. Across the country extreme temperatures and drought battered the region throughout the month, leaving an estimated 330 million people without enough water.

As the far-reaching health impacts of climate change become ever more evident, leading researchers from public health and climate science gathered last week at the Health and Climate Colloquium, jointly organized by the Mailman School, home to the first academic program in climate and health, and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI).

The three-day meeting, which took place at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth observatory campus in Palisades, NY, opened with remarks from Mailman School Dean Linda P. Fried. She spoke to the huge range of climate threats to health, from air pollution and sinking cities to vector-borne diseases, food and water insecurity, and climate refugees. Dean Fried argued that these challenges underscore the need for interdisciplinary research and education in climate and health, a subject of growing attention. She referenced a meeting held by Mailman and the White House at the COP 21 climate summit in Paris, which has energized a consortium of universities committed to teaching in the intersection of the two disciplines; 120 schools are committed so far.

Acknowledging the achievements of COP 21 and the UN Sustainable Development goals, Keith Hansen from the World Bank used his keynote address to affirm that climate change threatens to undo the health and development gains of recent years, potentially increasing the number of poor people by 100 million in the next 15 years. To help prevent this outcome, he said climate science was urgently needed. “The work you do may be technical, but it can be transformational,” Hansen said.

Disease Vectors

Many years before she joined IRI, Madeleine Thomson, was an entomologist in Sierra Leone. With the unexpected arrival of a species of blackfly, a vector for River Blindness, Thomson began to appreciate the role of climate in health. She spoke of a study published many years later that described how the insect was carried south by an unusual air current related to prolonged drought. The present-day threat of Zika was the subject of a talk by Anna Stewart from SUNY Upstate, who described a computer model that uses temperature variation to predict its spread.

Data Gaps

Scientists also spoke to the challenge of finding good data. Pat Kinney, who leads the Mailman School’s Climate and Health program, said research he conducts looking at the link between heat waves and mortality relies on daily temperature information that is largely unavailable in the developing world. IRI scientist Tufa Dinku agreed, noting that the number of weather stations in Africa has declined sharply in the wake of conflicts. In response, he has helped create a system that uses satellite observations to fill in the gaps.

Preparing for Extremes

This year’s extreme heat in India has become increasingly common in recent years. In 2010, Ahmedabad, India, experienced a heat wave with temperatures reaching 117 degrees, contributing to more than 1,300 deaths. “What is sometimes known as a silent killer—heat-related illness and mortality—was not so silent any more,” said Kim Knowlton, assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences. “People were dying in the streets.”

Following this wake-up call, the municipality worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council, where Knowlton is a senior scientist and Science Center deputy director, to create a heat action plan, including an early warning system. In the most recent heat wave, Ahmedabad reported 10 deaths—a number city officials attribute to better preparation.

Bringing Climate and Health to Scale

Knowlton and Kinney spoke of the growth of the Climate and Health program at the Mailman School, from its beginnings 15 years ago—she was its first doctoral graduate—to recent growth with the addition of the nation’s first master’s certificate and an NIH training grant. Through the Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education, the Mailman School hopes to replicate their program around the world with the ultimate goal to create more climate-resilient communities like Ahmedabad.

On October 29, Mailman is offering a one-day training for other schools at the American Public Health Association Conference in Denver. Going forward, the Consortium is looking to offering online courses to educate working professionals and other new audiences.

Said Kinney: “There is a clear need for training a new generation of practitioners of climate science and health science who understand each other, can work with each other and work with each other’s data, and apply it for decision-making by advancing the evidence base that underlies interventions.”

Keith Hansen echoed the sentiment, saying, “We need to train a new generation of decision makers who are as comfortable with climate data as they are with epidemiologic data. We have to build bridges between our meteorological experts and health, agriculture, and disaster planners. In short, we need more climate in health, and more health in climate.”

Watch video of the Health and Climate Colloquium.