Mailman School and White House Host Climate Event in Paris

December 4, 2015

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, Dean Linda P. Fried and other leaders from the Mailman School and the White House are gathering 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 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-related health effects of 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.

Speaking at the April White House meeting, Pat Kinney, director of the Mailman School’s Climate and Health program and professor of Environmental Health Sciences, emphasized need for education in climate and health. The 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. Mailman’s Climate and Health 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, these 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 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, Kim Knowlton, assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences, has helped several municipalities there to create early warning systems 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 poor 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 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,” 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.”