Nevertheless, They Persisted: Resuscitating a National Climate and Health Teach-In

By path2positive

Our nation’s leading climate and health experts (as far as we know) did not go so far as appropriating the now iconic phrase, “s/he persisted,” and memorializing it in ink across their biceps in a nod to Senator Elizabeth Warren. All the same, an air of determination and energetic comradery filled the Jimmy Carter Center in Atlanta this February, when nearly 350 academics, climate scientists, physicians, nurses, and public and environmental health professionals transferred their RSVPs from an abruptly cancelled, three-day CDC event to a rapidly reconfigured, jam-packed, one-day national Climate & Health Meeting.

The substitute meeting was endorsed in record time by over 50 health organizations, funded in part by the Turner Foundation, and re-organized by former Vice President Al Gore’s The Climate Reality Project, the American Public Health Association, the Harvard Global Health Institute, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Global Health Institute, The University of Washington Center for Health and the Global Environment, plus a small cadre of health luminaries, including Climate for Health Leadership Circle member Dr. Howard Frumkin, former director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, who temporarily abandoned a sabbatical in Europe to ensure the show would go on, and Dr. George Luber, epidemiologist and Chief of the Climate and Health Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who undoubtedly against doctor’s orders, fought through a bad (but presumably no longer contagious) bout of the flu to share how CDC-funded cities and states are piloting new strategies to prepare for and prevent climate-related health impacts at the community level. Also appearing as a surprise guest host was President Jimmy Carter, whose advocacy of cardigan sweaters and solar panels while in the White House now seems even more prescient – and clean energy leadership all the more authentic – as he launches a new "solar farm" in place of soybeans and peanuts that is capable of powering up to half of his hometown in Plains, Georgia.

Impacts, Investments, and Innovations

Former Vice President Gore, regarded by many as being the first to raise widespread awareness and provoke action on climate change, kicked the event off with a 360-degree, evidence-based tour de force, inviting leading national and international climate and health scientists to the stage. These experts shared the latest research findings about the many ways a changing climate is already affecting our health, and projected the data forward to help predict what could be ahead for future generations, depending upon which carbon-emission scenarios and subsequent temperature changes prevail, alongside the levers of technological interventions, renewable energy, behavior change, and policy at all levels. The panelists laid out the increasingly familiar but still expanding list of known climate change and human health impacts, ranging from asthma, heart disease, stroke, malnutrition, and injury, as well as the mental health implications linked to the intensification of stress and anxiety that can lead to higher rates of depression, anger, and even violence.

Former Vice President Gore also expressed deep concern about the need for continued investment in research at all levels to generate the climate data upon which sound public health planning, preparation, and adaptation depends. Gore especially highlighted the critical and unique role our nation’s universities play in conducting ongoing research that not only helps us to more accurately assess climate impacts, but also drives the technological innovations required for a clean-energy, sustainable future.

Reflecting upon the litany of health impacts illustrated by the colorful gallery of graphs and charts filling the day’s screens, Gore recounted how America’s research universities essentially operate under a contract with the American people: “We, as academics, commit to working on the most pressing social issues,” and in turn, “the American people, through their support for government, commit to supporting the climate research that has necessarily ‘revolutionized science.’” Gore further noted that this reciprocity had reinforced America’s intellectual and moral leadership in the world. He implored the audience to do everything possible to ensure these funding commitments would not be abandoned as the need grows to have credible, evidence-based research to guide our response to climate change and its impact on health.

Reflecting the decision to provide an all-access, free, live webcast of the event, Gore underscored that becoming smarter about protecting and promoting health could not be confined to climate scientists. He noted that institutions of higher education also now have an irrefutable obligation to ensure that “all students across all disciplines who walk through the halls of all our colleges and universities understand the science of climate change and its linkages to public health.” Beyond this, Gore implored academics, scientists, and health professionals to do a better job of communicating the science, and helping policymakers and the general public understand what is at stake, the true costs of inaction, and the viable options for reducing climate threats and promoting health and well-being.

Putting a Human Face on Climate Change

Fittingly, the meeting concluded with a session focused on the need to reach people left unmoved by “the plight of penguins and polar bears” by shifting to talking about people and their health. Gore emphasized a fresh conviction that focusing on this missing “p” – people – may be the most powerful way of making the stakes of climate change real. Quoting the words of Michelle Williams, Dean of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, “Health is the human face of climate change,” Gore called upon health professionals to step forward and mobilize Americans to practice “enlightened self-interest.” By supporting climate solutions, people can act in their own interests at the same time that they act on behalf of their families, communities, all humankind, and yes, even our planet. 

The takeaway message was that placing health at the center of climate change policy and communications can be a game-changer. Health, more than ever before, is being looked to as the best way to elicit broad-scale support for climate solutions – solutions that can sustain a world where children can still grow up to be thriving, productive, healthy adults. Indeed, if we and our fellow species are to persist in our amazing diversity, the quest for generating and sharing knowledge cannot be shut down at such a critical juncture.

At meeting’s close, there was a collective sense of gratitude for the many leaders who rolled up their sleeves, be it sweaters or suit jackets, to insist that a climate and health meeting would take place. I have little doubt that were we to roll some of those sleeves up just a bit more, we should not be surprised to find a message or two inked across the arms of those who organized, who participated, and who, nevertheless, persisted. 

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