Students Interview John Balbus

April 28, 2015

On April 7, President Obama spoke out on the health risks of climate change, bringing together experts from academia, government, and industry, and announcing initiatives to build momentum around the issue. The occasion was a highpoint in the career of John Balbus, senior advisor for public health to the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and tomorrow’s Granville H. Sewell Distinguished Lecturer.

Ahead of his April 29 Grand Rounds talk, representatives from Students for Environmental Action spoke to Balbus about the high profile attention to climate and health, and how cities and the health sector can make a difference.

What were the highlights of the recent White House events on climate and health?

Along with the Roundtable at Howard University that President Obama attended, we published our major technical literature review of the science of climate change and health, released 20 new resilience tools, 150 government datasets, as well as a toolkit for healthcare facilities to help them become more sustainable and resilient.

Why focus on data?

Six years ago, our interagency group on climate and health was created to connect researchers and public health practitioners to federal governmental science. Over and over, people told us they didn’t know where to get their hands on the relevant climate and other types of data. Organizing and disseminating these data is a huge step forward that we hope will stimulate research as well as the creation of web apps and other tools.    

How does health change discussion on climate change?

By bringing public health voices and perspective to the discussion, we are changing the conversation from just being about energy and oil to our health and the health of our children and grandchildren, and the way we live.

There is real opportunity to address some of the fundamental health problems in this country through actions that are also in line with our sustainability and carbon reduction goals. For example, increasing opportunities for physical activity simultaneously moves us away from a reliance on cars for transportation. This will help us transition to a carbon-free society and also have an immediate payoff for health.

The public health community has a huge role to help make this connection for people.

Do you see a need for additional training for doctors?

In medicine, we spend endless hours learning about the micro-environment—biochemistry, tissue morphology, etc. But we spend almost no time learning about the macro environment and the social determinants of health. Physicians need to understand issues like how heat stress interacts with prescription drugs and how our built environments can encourage or discourage physical activity. If a medical student is learning about respiratory disease, they should understand how air pollution and thermal extremes exacerbate lung illnesses.   

Is health a useful framework for getting the public and policymakers to take action on climate?

Climate change is very politically charged, whereas everybody can relate to concerns about health. The discussion shifts from corporate energy and faraway places to the health of our children and parents in the here and now. The good news is that the public health community knows a lot about inspiring people to do things they may not otherwise think to do, whether it’s getting a colonoscopy or buying condoms. We can apply that understanding to sustainability and health.

Will the health effects of climate change be a tipping point for climate deniers and skeptics?

The value of bringing public health into the discussion isn’t so much about convincing skeptics. Our goal is to stimulate productive action. We need physicians and public health practitioners to talk about the high quantity of severe heatwaves they have experienced and the health implications of those events. Regardless of whether you believe human actions are causing climate change, health is a shared value where communities can discuss ways to protect themselves.

Attend John Balbus's Grand Rounds talk on April 29, 4:00-5:30 p.m., at Alumni Auditorium, 650 West 168th Street, or watch it on LiveStream.