Aug. 19 2021

The Climate Crisis Is a Health Crisis. We Need Your Help.

The Columbia Mailman School’s New Leader in Climate and Health Education Is on a Mission to Make You Consider How the Warming Climate Changes Everything

This summer saw a terrifying onslaught of climate-related disasters and portents—wildfires, floods, extreme temperatures, drought, signs of a collapsing Gulf Stream, an iceberg the size of Puerto Rico, the world’s biggest rainforest becoming a net emitter of carbon dioxide. Then came the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, 4,000 pages of rigorous science on the cataclysmic consequences of fossil fuel emissions.

According to Cecilia Sorensen, the new director of the Global Consortium on Climate Health Education (GCCHE) at the Columbia Mailman School, the climate crisis is also a crisis for human health, and health professionals must play a critical role in mitigation and adaptation. “The UN chief called the IPCC report a ‘code red’ for humanity because, at its core, climate change is a health emergency,” says Sorensen, an emergency medicine physician by training. “We need all hands, all minds, all hearts, and unprecedented collaboration to solve this greatest challenge of our time. Now is not the time to give up, but to get up, and get to work.”

Launched in 2017, GCCHE was born out of meetings at the December 2015 COP-21 climate conference in Paris and an earlier White House special session on the need for greater investment in the study of and planning for the health impacts of climate change. Today, the Consortium has 220 members around the world who have pledged to educate their students on the health impacts of climate change, such as air pollution, extreme weather events, food and housing insecurity, heat-related illness, and vector-borne diseases. Yet many more schools must be recruited to build the global capacity necessary to address all these impacts; still too many health professions curricula turn a blind eye to climate change. 

Sorensen, who joins Columbia Mailman as associate professor of environmental health sciences, argues that every health professional needs to see health through a climate lens—no matter their training. Public health workers must integrate climatologic data with health data to assess vulnerability and prevent unwanted outcomes. Nurses and community health workers need to identify early signs of heat stress in elderly patients and to assess the vulnerabilities of their patients to emergencies like flooding and loss of electricity. Physicians need to look out for growing climate-related health threats like heatstroke and vector-borne diseases. 

“We’re used to planning on a future based on past experience; climate changes all that,” she says. “We need to educate ourselves on how disease dynamics are shifting. We’re going to see things we’ve never seen before.”

GCCHE has developed a set of core competencies that all health professionals need to know—such as climate mitigation and adaptation strategies and emergency planning skills—and resources to teach them. Starting this spring, the consortium will offer a “Climate and Health First Responders” series for faculty and anyone else who wants to become a climate and health educator, leader, or advocate. In the spring, a lecture series in partnership with Healthcare Without Harm will explore possibilities for mitigation; the healthcare industry, which goes through huge quantities of disposable materials, is among the biggest contributors to climate change. This summer, a Climate Health Rapid Response webinar series will tackle topics beginning with Heatwaves in the Pacific Northwest on August 26.

Emergency Medicine to Climate Emergency

A native of Colorado, Sorensen majored in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she learned how minuscule quantities of environmental chemicals can have a major effect on human health. She earned her MD at Drexel University College of Medicine and completed residency training in emergency medicine at Denver Health. In 2017, she was named the first Climate and Health Science Policy fellow through a joint program between the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the University of Colorado. Today she co-directs the fellowship (one of five current fellows now works at GCCHE).

The founder and director of the Bush Medicine Partnership, a non-profit dedicated to bringing high-quality health care to low resource communities, Sorensen has volunteered in the wake of several climate-related disasters, including in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, and in a Syrian refugee camp during the Civil War, where she provided OBGYN care in a tent with no electricity to about 50 women every day for three months. “About 80 percent of refugees are women and children,” she says. “Their needs are extensive but too often are sidelined.”

In 2018, she published a paper on climate change and women’s health in PLOS Medicine, arguing that climate change threatens to widen existing gender-based health disparities, especially in low- and middle-income countries. Other published research has explored the effects of wildfire smoke on increased ICU admissions in the U.S. and the links between heat stress and chronic kidney disease in sugarcane workers in Guatemala.

When she left Denver in July for New York City, Sorensen said she hadn’t seen the sky in two months due to wildfires (the smoke also briefly muddied skies in the Big Apple). Last summer was even worse when ER cases in the Colorado city spiked due to a combination of COVID and smoke exposure. To make matters worse, at least a quarter of clinical staff was forced to evacuate their homes. The ER was full of smoke due to a lack of air filters. “These syndemic situations where we see multiple emergent health issues at once are becoming increasingly common,” she says.

For anyone paying attention, climate change can be terrifying. Global fossil fuel emissions continue to rise even as the consequences become ever more evident. Yet Sorensen says it’s crucial that we hold onto hope. “The difficult truth is the world is on fire, and it is going to get a lot worse before everyone wakes up. But eventually, things are going to change,” she says. “As a physician and someone who deals with human suffering, I’m here to take care of people. And we all are here to take care of each other. We can’t give up. When it comes to depression, action is the antidote. Get on a bike and ride to work. Stop using plastic bags. Vote for climate-sensible policies. Do something. Do anything.”

For her part, Sorensen says she is excited by the chance to equip health professionals with a growing body of knowledge on the myriad health effects of the climate crisis—and ways to help people both mitigate these impacts adapt to changing conditions: “It’s inspiring to me to be able to take this knowledge and introduce it into curricula, and by extension into the work of people who need it the most—physicians, nurses, public health providers—in areas of the world severely affected by climate change. We want to be a motivating force to develop concrete steps forward.”