On the eve of the UN Climate Summit in New York, an impressive array of world health leaders gathered for an event on Action in Climate Change and Health. Convened by the Public Health Institute (PHI) together with the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the Global Climate and Health Alliance, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the event featured Acting U.S. Surgeon General Boris Lushniak, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, The Lancet editor Dr. Richard Horton, Maria Neira of the World Health Organization, Ambassador Asterio Takesyof the Federated States of Micronesia, and other global, health and climate change leaders.
The event, which quickly filled to capacity, explored the numerous health benefits of climate mitigation, the threats climate change poses to health, and the path toward a sustainable and healthy future. The hosts and discussions drew from multiple sectors—illustrating the widespread impact of the intersection between climate change and health.
In a rousing opening keynote address, Lancet editor Dr. Horton delved into the deeper causes of climate change and of a host of other current environmental degradations, saying, “What matters as much as CO2 in the climate crisis is our institutions and values.” He called for a social movement to support planetary health, and for public health to take a leadership role.
Micronesia Ambassador Takesy’s equally impassioned closing keynote highlighted the existential threat that climate change already represents for the people of Micronesia and others around the world. He called for updating the Montreal Protocol to ban hydrofluorocarbons (highly potent greenhouse gases) as an immediate step to help countries like his, where livelihoods and lives are already at stake as a result of climate change.
The event also featured an address by Dr. Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Patz announced the release of an article he co-authored for the Journal of the American Medical Association. The findings, which drew on studies from the past two decades, showed that rising temperatures and altered weather patterns will exacerbate many current health threats. At the same time, efforts to mitigate climate change offer benefits to both health and economies. The article drew wide media attention to the intersection of climate and health, and the important role of the health sector in addressing climate change.
The heart of the conference was a series of three panels on health opportunities within key climate change strategies. Sustainable diets and agriculture, active transportation, and clean energy all mitigate climate change while also offering significant benefits to health. In fact, health savings from these approaches can offset, or even outweigh, mitigation costs .
In a panel on climate, agriculture and nutrition moderated by PHI’s Dr. Linda Rudolph, Sir Andy Haines of the London School of Hygiene noted that climate change could reduce crop yields by up to 40%. Gunhild Stordalen, a Norwegian physician and chair of the Stordalen Foundation, highlighted the role of consumers and the private sector to choose healthier foods, which coincidentally are healthier for the planet. In many countries, shifting to more plant-based diets could reduce a host of non-communicable diseases while reducing the climate impacts of meat production, said Alessandro Demaio of NCDFree during the panel. Mark Holderness of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research discussed local solutions for food production that can adapt to a changing climate.
The event’s second panel focused on walking, biking and transit as ways to reduce vehicle emissions while increasing physical activity. Surgeon General Lushniak, who demonstrated his commitment to physical activity by walking among the audience throughout his opening remarks, joined a panel with Andy Clarke of the League of American Bicyclists, long-time physical activity proponent Jim Sallis of Active Living Research, and Carlos Dora of the World Health Organization. Janet Rankin, former president of the American College of Sports Medicine moderated, and later announced ACSM’s new initiative, ActivEarth.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Gina McCarthy, who has been much in the news lately in connection with the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan to regulate carbon pollution from fossil fuel-burning power plants, insisted, “It’s not climate action that’s costly, it’s climate inaction.” Following Ms. McCarthy, the day’s final panel centered on clean energy, and the health co-benefits of improved air quality. Every year, air pollution causes 7 million premature deaths, said WHO’s Maria Neira. Increasing energy efficiency and shifting to renewables and away from coal and other fossil fuels would clean the air, with major immediate benefits to health, while also mitigating climate change. Panelist Dr. Jeff Thompson of Gundersen Health System announced that Gundersen had committed to freezing any future investments in fossil fuel companies, the first such announcement by a major US health system. Thompson discussed the many efforts Gundersen is making to “green” its hospitals.
At the close of the conference, Dr. Rudolph introduced the U.S. Climate and Health Alliance, for which PHI serves as the secretariat. The Alliance is a national network of health and public health organizations and individuals dedicated to addressing the threats of climate change to health, working to strengthen and raise the health voice in decision making about climate change.
The event offered an unparalleled opportunity for leading figures from all corners to discuss strategies for mitigating climate change and securing co-benefits to health, which offer vital opportunities to create healthier, more equitable and more vibrant communities throughout the world.
More information and forthcoming video:
The event website contains a full list of speakers and will also host video from the event by mid-late October.
- Release of article “Climate Change: Challenges and Opportunities for Global Health” in the Journal of the American Medical Association
- Launch of ActivEarth, to promote active transportation to both address climate change and increase physical activity and improve health
- Invitation for new members to U.S. Climate and Health Alliance
- American Heart Association
- American Lung Association
- American Public Health Association
- Communications Coordination Committee for the United Nations
- Consortium of Universities for Global Health
- Health Care Without Harm
- National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
- New York Academy of Medicine
- Pan American Health Organization
- The Lancet
- Trust for America’s Health
- World Health Organization
Media and social media:
Surgeon General to Speak Before UN Climate Summit, 9/18, The Hill
Obama’s Cabinet Goes to Bat for Climate, 9/18, The Hill
Actions on climate change bring better health, study says , 9/23, USA News