The human face of climate change is its impact on our health. Higher temperatures intensify air pollution and respiratory illness. Changing weather patterns lead to drought and then famine, while increasing rains in other areas will create the breeding ground for disease and pandemics. While the policy changes needed to blunt climate change are surely substantial, the cost of ignoring the science behind climate change will be felt through its harmful effects on our health. Recently, the CDC cancelled its Climate and Health Summit out of fear of retribution from the Trump administration. Working with Al Gore and others, Harvard worked to revive the meeting, which was held in Atlanta on February 16. This meeting reminded us that universities have a unique responsibility that we ensure a platform for key scientific issues that have a meaningful effect on people’s health. Climate change is one such critical issue.
A century ago, one in three children died before age five. That number has been cut by 90 percent because of global investments in public health. Climate change, unchecked, puts these gains, and lives, at risk. Weather shifts from climate change will change the availability and reduce the nutritional content of food. The levels of protein and crucial micronutrients in key staple crops will drop, exposing billions of the world’s poorest people to worsening malnutrition. The gains we have made in saving the lives of children are fragile – and unlikely to withstand the challenges created by climate change unless we act now.
The effects of climate change on health will not stop with agriculture. Burning fossil fuels release a wide array of air pollutants that are a leading cause of asthma, heart disease, and strokes in our country and around the globe. Children are particularly vulnerable, and so are the elderly. The increasing number of heat waves is dangerous, but the interaction between high temperatures and air pollution becomes especially deadly.
The changing climate will likely shift the geographical range of insects that carry disease, including ticks carrying Lyme disease and mosquitos which carry malaria. The increasing number of infectious disease outbreaks such as Ebola and Zika appear to be linked, at least in part, to ongoing environmental shifts that exacerbate climate change. It is not hard to imagine that if we alter an ecosystem where we and other species live in equilibrium, there will be meaningful consequences.
Transitioning to energy sources that reduce carbon pollution will help the U.S. meet its commitments under the recent Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and, importantly, will also benefit the health of all Americans. In a nation where our government already pays for the health care of our elderly and many of our children, reducing health burdens not only saves lives, but it can also be fiscally responsible. Our colleagues at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recently found that the health savings to the American people from the Environmental Protection Agency’s new carbon standards will far outweigh the cost to industry within five years.
As these changes unfold, universities have a unique obligation, through research, education, and better communication, to understand and explain the impact of climate change on health and find ways to mitigate it. This research, at Harvard and at universities across our country, is dependent on a long-standing agreement between universities and the American people: universities will work on the most pressing issues facing our nation, and our citizens, through their government, will support that research. That agreement faces a serious challenge today from politicians skeptical about the science of climate change and the value of scientific investment. Yet it is more important than ever to renew our commitment to funding research on climate change and especially, its impact on health. Universities must commit to producing unbiased, high-quality data to guide decision- and policy-making, and the government should keep its commitment to supporting that work.
Finally, it is essential that universities engage more effectively with the public regarding what the science tells us about the impact of climate change on health. Sharing data openly and transparently is crucial to helping policy-makers reach / agree on the best decisions.
This is a critical moment for our nation. Climate change is upon us. We can no longer think of it as an issue of temperature changes or sea level rises alone. We must remember that we will feel the effects of climate change most acutely on our health. We still have the time to mitigate these effects by focusing on reducing carbon pollution and slowing the warming of the planet. If we do, we will reap the benefits in terms of longer and healthier lives. And our children will be the biggest beneficiaries.