Climate Change & Health

Climate Change & Health

Jonathan Schell, whose 1982 book, The Fate of the Earth, raised public awareness about the dangers of the nuclear arms race, and who more recently has compared the nuclear threat to the threat of extinction posed by global climate change, warns that “in tampering with the earth we tamper with a mystery.” “We are in deep ignorance,” Schell writes. “Our ignorance should dispose us to wonder, our wonder should make us humble, our humility should inspire us to reverence and caution, and our reverence and caution should lead us to act without delay to withdraw the threat we now pose to the earth and to ourselves.”

Schell’s name—and his urgent call to action—came up more than once during a workshop on “Climate Change and Human Health” in Goa, India, in late August. Sponsored by the University of Michigan Center for Global Health, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Indian Council for Medical Research, the four-day workshop focused on climate-change prediction and prevention in India. Under the auspices of the existing Indo–United States Collaboration on Environmental and Occupational Health, partners from academia, government, and non-governmental organizations met to discuss the current state of the science, to identify gaps in understanding, and to outline future research directions related to the human health effects of climate change.

Howard Hu, professor and chair of environmental health sciences at the UM School of Public Health, and Rani Kotha, deputy director of the UM Center for Global Health, led a UM contingent that included both faculty and graduate students. Workshop participants agreed that in the lead-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, this December, international discussions on climate change must result in concrete directions forward.

One of the workshop’s most sobering but productive presentations focused on efforts to model the likely impact of climate change in India. Of particular concern were links between climate change and heat-related mortality; particle-associated cardiovascular disease; malaria, cholera, dengue, and other encephalitis viruses; and diarrheal disease. Current projections suggest that climate change, coupled with the effects of an ongoing drought that has ravaged parts of the country, will eventually lead to a major reduction in the availability of potable water and food in India.

Among the most pressing research needs identified by participants in the workshop were:

  • The need for a centralized repository of health-surveillance data;
  • The need for retrospective studies of climate-sensitive health outcomes;
  • The need to identify location-specific relationships between exposures and health under current climate conditions, and to extrapolate findings under alternative climate scenarios; and
  • The need to estimate the health and climate-change benefits of alternative adaptation and mitigation strategies.
  • Countries such as India, the participants noted, have a tremendous opportunity to guide our future trajectory regarding sustainable development.

By Katie Bush

Courtyard Bounty

In the gardenInspired in part by the spring/summer 2009 issue of Findings—“Food for the 21st Century”—School of Public Health staff members Sara Schlotterbeck and Mary Beth Lewis coordinated an edible garden in the SPH courtyard, behind the Crossroads building, over the summer. Doctoral students in environmental health sciences contributed soil and design expertise, and additional staff members helped water so that returning students could enjoy herbs, greens, and tomatoes with their lunch. “The big surprise was that administrators and the University of Michigan Plant Department were behind us,” says Lewis. UM SPH Senior Associate Dean Martin Philbert envisions expanding the garden next year.