Experts meet to address ‘urgent’ climate threats to public health

Climate change-related droughts in Samburu County, Kenya have placed extra pressure on pastoralists, who must travel further to find pasture for their animals. This pressure has intensified competition for resources and violence between local groups such as the Samburu and Turkana peoples. (Edward Harris, Africa Progress Panel/Flickr)

Environmental health experts are gathering at the Carter Center in Atlanta this week to openly discuss the public health response to climate change, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention abruptly canceled the event last month over what some said were fears of running afoul of the U.S. president.

“I’m looking forward to a thorough exchange of the latest science and best practices regarding climate change and health,” former Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Environmental Health Howard Frumkin said in an email to Humanosphere. “That will include data on what the risks are, on how to protect people from those risks, on what health co-benefits result from tackling climate change, and on how best to communicate this to the public and to decision-makers.”

The CDC provided no explanation when it canceled the event last month, but several of the event’s scheduled speakers told Washington Post that the government agency did not want to run afoul of a president who has called climate change a “hoax” and nominated climate change skeptics to his Cabinet.

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“I was disappointed,” Frumkin said of the cancellation. “Climate change is an urgent public health challenge.  Whenever a public health challenge gets politicized – whether it’s influenza, heart disease, sexual behavior, violence, climate change, to name a few – that can interfere with discovering and implementing effective science-based solutions.”

This week’s meeting is organized by nongovernmental groups: the American Public Health Association (APHA), Harvard Global Health Institute, the University of Washington Center for Health and the Global Environment, and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and his education and advocacy group the Climate Reality Project.

The organizers stressed the urgency of developing a public health response to climate change in a statement released last month, emphasizing that 2016 was the third consecutive hottest year on record, and that 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001.

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Mounting evidence indicates that climate change will soon pose major health risks to people around the world – particularly the world’s poorest – and threatens to undermine decades of progress in global health and development.

Among these threats are millions more deaths caused by extreme heat; weather extremes including severe storms, droughts and flooding; worsening air quality; more frequent outbreaks of diseases transmitted by mosquitoes and ticks; longer allergy seasons; increased spread of some infectious diseases; and reduced quantity and quality of food crops.

Climate change has also led to conflicts and population displacement, which in turn introduce a range of mental and physiological health threats. Experts say such threats will intensify and that new ones will appear in coming years.

The Carter Center’s climate and health meeting will be live-streamed, and its organizers anticipate a packed room of around 200 people, including scientists, public health officials and policymakers.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com