THE BLOG
05/31/2016 11:44 am ET Updated Jun 01, 2017

The Crucial Connection Between Climate and Health

In labs and classrooms, we are building an understanding of the volatility of our planet's changing climate and anticipating its adverse effects on human health. That knowledge is key to creating evidence-based solutions to climate change—but it is beyond time to forge a link between that learning and decision-makers around the world. Next week in New York, we have an opportunity to do just that at the 2016 Health and Climate Colloquium.

In North America, changing weather patterns in both hemispheres are causing alarming disruptions. A relatively dry El Niño winter and a warm spring that melted snow earlier-than-normal created forest fires that forced the evacuation of 80,000 Alberta residents and destroyed more than 702,000 acres—about 1,096 square miles. The Zika virus is entering the United States from the Caribbean, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that at least 20 percent of Puerto Rico's 3.5 million residents will become infected with the mosquito-borne virus this year. According to Reuters, Zika "is beginning to show up in warm climates in U.S. southern states such as Florida." The climate shocks associated with natural variability, such as El Niño, are being compounded by longer-term climatic trends—particularly in temperature—which facilitate further spread of the disease.

The White House recently issued a report by the interagency U.S. Global Change Research Program titled The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment. Developed over three years by leading experts in climate change science and public health, it is the most comprehensive volume of research on the topic to date, and provides overwhelming evidence that as the climate continues to change, the risks to human health will continue to grow, exacerbating existing threats and creating new challenges for population health.

The report states:

Current and future climate impacts expose more people in more places to public health threats. Already in the United States, we have observed climate-related increases in our exposure to elevated temperatures; more frequent, severe, or longer-lasting extreme events; degraded air quality; diseases transmitted through food, water, and disease vectors (such as ticks and mosquitoes); and stresses to our mental health and well-being. Almost all of these threats are expected to worsen with continued climate change. Some of these health threats will occur over longer time periods, or at unprecedented times of the year; some people will be exposed to threats not previously experienced in their locations.

The challenge is, of course, a global one, and the United States and its fellow nations have a vested interest in tackling it together. Around the world, awareness must be created to build on existing science and partner on solutions. That's one major reason the Health and Climate Colloquium is being convened from June 8-10 in Palisades, New York, by Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society and Mailman School of Public Health.

Serving as a launchpad for a global network of climate and health scientists and policymakers, the Colloquium will bring together experts who understand the complex relationship between climate and health and know how to use climate science and data to educate their peers, influence policy, and protect the health of populations. The meeting will focus on infectious diseases, nutrition, and the public health outcomes of disasters caused by extreme weather, and will bring together policymakers, practitioners, and researchers from multinational agencies, government, civil society, and the private sector. Representatives from more than 25 nations will share cutting-edge health and climate research and outline the tools needed to strengthen health policy and practice in resource-limited settings. We will discuss ways of collaborating, needed evidence, and the role of schools of public health in conducting research that can feed into public policy. And, we'll focus on the underlying data that's needed to develop climate and health analyses, appropriate methodologies for specific problems, and how best to integrate climate science into health decision making.

Climate science expertise is growing—but so is the need to translate and apply that science into public health practice. We need mechanisms by which scientific understanding is shared with practitioners on the ground to create solid evidence for sound policy relevant to different leaders, different conditions, and different contexts. Reliable data can help countries better deliver health programs in the context of changes in the climate over seasonal, year-to-year, or longer timescales. Such information may help better allocate resources, adapt to climate change, and achieve development goals.

It is vitally important that we recognize and understand that climate change is already threatening our health, anticipate its breadth, build evidence-based solutions grounded in sound science, and implement plans to protect hard-won health gains while minimizing catastrophe risks. To achieve this ambitious agenda, we need to invest in expertise in climate and public health, but critically, we also need global collaborations among the many diverse actors who can drive it forward—leaders across government, civil society, and the private sector.

The Colloquium in New York is just a beginning, but it represents a crucial commitment for health in the 21st century. Because of the urgency of this topic for every nation on earth, the entire event will be available on Livestream here: http://iri.columbia.edu/healthclimate2016/