Environmental Factor, May 2008, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Laureate Cautious, Offers Some Hope about Climate Change
By Eddy Ball
Speaking as part of the NIEHS Frontiers of Environmental Sciences lecture series in Rodbell Auditorium April 18, global environmental public health expert Jonathan Patz, M.D., hit a potentially optimistic note in the face of grim predictions about the effects of climate change - even as he presented a long list of reasons for taking immediate action.
At the conclusion of his talk, titled "Should We Sweat It? The Health and Environmental Implications of Climate Change," Patz argued that addressing the causes global warming will offer people opportunities to improve the environment worldwide while benefiting health and the quality of their lives in ways they may not have anticipated.
A professor at the University of Wisconsin (UW) School of Medicine and Public Health with a joint appointment in the UW Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, Patz has been a leader on many expert health panels studying climate change, including the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)(http://www.ipcc.ch/) . Along with many other honors, in 2007 he shared in the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to IPCC and former Vice President Al Gore.
Host Chris Portier, Ph.D., NIEHS associate director, introduced Patz, who thanked NIEHS for taking the lead in NIH efforts to address climate change and develop innovative risk assessment models (see related story in Spotlight). "I think it's a tremendous environmental public health issue," Patz said, "and NIH should really take a look at these issues."
The lecture opened with an overview of the scientific findings that have convinced most climatologists that the earth is gradually warming and that almost certainly human activities are playing a major role in that change. Events that seem to contradict global warming, such as an unusually cold winter, Patz explained, are the results of natural phenomena and well-understood weather patterns and do not contradict the long-term trend of climate change.
Patz devoted most of his talk to aspects of climate change that are sometimes overshadowed by the more dramatic prospects of widespread famine, melting glaciers and rising sea levels. The changes in the climate that affect human health also include extreme weather events and heat waves, such as the one that occurred in Chicago in 1995 and the one that killed thousands in Europe in 2003. The accumulation of greenhouse gases, Patz noted, is leading to the increased frequency of higher than normal temperatures and extreme rainfall, which in turn trigger increases in air and water pollution.
According to Patz, global warming has been linked to rises in vector-borne and water-born diseases, including malaria and parasitic infections, and it affects water resources and food supplies. Harder to quantify, but also important, Patz added, are the effects on the mental and physical health of people forced to migrate because of flooding and diminishing food supplies.
According to Patz, developing appropriate risk assessment models for climate change is an important challenge. "It's really going to take an innovative approach to do an adequate risk assessment of climate change" he explained. "It's not going to be a simple dose-response kind of situation."
This challenge of developing an innovative risk assessment model, Patz reasoned, brings with it opportunities for exploring co-benefits that will accrue from environmental remediation. "Not only do we need to assess the risks," he said. "We need to look at energy policy, transportation policy, even agriculture policy and say, 'Can we quantify the benefits?'"
As a follow-up to his question, Patz pointed to estimates of the millions of years of healthy life that could be saved by reducing preventable causes of death and disease, such as obesity and air pollution, and the enormous health expense related to them. He proposed that reducing the world's use of motorized transportation, increasing physical activity and improving the design of cities and suburban areas will produce co-benefits that should be carefully researched and quantified.
That component of the risk assessment could be helpful in motivating people to make informed choices about energy use and lifestyle.
Translating the Message into Action
Jonathan Patz is no Pollyanna when it comes to climate change. He is also not a Jeremiah crying in the wilderness. At home in Madison, Wis., and throughout the world, Patz is part of efforts to make a difference about the future.
As a member of the UW Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE), Patz directs a university-wide initiative demonstrating the effects of relatively painless and cost-effective changes in his daily life described in a recent UW Quarterlyabout him. He walks or bikes to work and uses a bicycle trailer to transport up to six bags of groceries. He has made several changes in his home to reduce energy use, such as solar hot water, mini fluorescent light bulbs and insulating blinds. Concerned about the energy used flying to the many conferences he attends each year, he is trying to reduce travel through increasing teleconferencing.
One conference Patz will probably have no choice about flying to is the International EcoHealth Forum 2008(http://www.ecohealth2008.org/) December 1-5 in Merida, Mexico, which is co-sponsored by NIEHS. The forum will promote the same kind of innovative thinking across disciplines and professions that Patz' outlined in his April 18 presentation. Along with environmental pollution and public health concerns, topics to be addressed at the forum include the oceans, ethics, economics, agricultural transformation and governance.