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Birnbaum Puts a Human Face on Climate Change

By Robin Mackar
April 2010


The first slide in a presentation by NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.(, before an audience of more than 100 college students, professors, and concerned citizens was of a cuddly, vulnerable-looking polar bear. "This is not the face of climate change we're going to be talking about tonight," said NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., as she began her March 23, 2010 evening climate change talk at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) Institute for the Environment ( NIEHS ongoing Environmental Seminar Series, which was co-sponsored by the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health ( NIEHS.

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.
Birnbaum, who is also an adjunct professor at UNC-CH, easily established rapport with her academic audience, as she called for community support in the quest to ameliorate the effects of climate change. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

"The real face of climate change is yours and mine, and those of our children, our parents, our friends - everyone we care about, and all of our fellow humankind," Birnbaum said as she showed a series of captivating slides depicting the human faces of climate change - including a woman whose home was destroyed by fire, another's destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, a young boy using an inhaler, a newborn, and a man overwhelmed by the heat in the city. "The consequences of climate change on people are just as real as the effects on polar bears and other wildlife."

Summarizing some of the key points scientists have recently learned about how the earth's climate is changing or expected to change in coming years, Birnbaum said scientific consensus shows that temperatures are in fact rising, and have been accelerating over the past 60 years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts average temperatures to increase by anywhere from about 1.5 degrees to 6 or 7 degrees centigrade by the beginning of next century, she added, noting the dramatic and well-publicized effects of climate change on the natural landscape, such as diminishing ice masses in places like the Mount Kilamanjaro and changes in sea levels. Birnbaum also discussed in detail how climate is affecting human health and what research is needed to address its impact (see text box).

Birnbaum then turned to reasons for hope. "The good news is, we have many of the skills, expertise, and tools we already need to achieve major public health benefits while avoiding some of the worst human consequences of climate change in our communities." She highlighted efforts by NIEHS, the U.K.'s Wellcome Trust, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and several others to co-fund a set of studies looking at what the effects for health might be with some fairly technologically simple changes. The papers were published in the journal The Lancet in November 2009 and highlighted by press conferences in both the U.S. and U.K. (access links to papers and National Press Club video online(htt

Birnbaum concluded her presentation by highlighting the role that NIEHS is playing to help mitigate the effects of climate change, including NIEHS's recent support of several American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants related to climate change, the addition of physician John Balbus who will serve as the Institute's senior advisor for public health (see story(, overseeing NIEHS efforts on climate change and health, and she also highlighted several of the interagency efforts NIEHS is leading or participating in.

Birnbaum then reached out to UNC-CH and others in the public health community to join NIEHS and federal agencies in their efforts to address climate change. "Humans are the only species that can work to undo this damage and protect our planet and our health. It will take the combined intellect, will, and resources of all of us to do this, but it can be done. And the time to start is now."

(Robin Mackar is the news director in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

Climate Change Research Priorities

During her talk, Birnbaum focused on eight disease areas that have been identified by NIEHS and other agencies in a soon to be released white paper as being impacted by climate change and that need to be addressed through further research. These included:

  • Respiratory allergies and airway diseases
  • Cardiovascular diseases and stroke
  • Food-borne disease and nutrition
  • Heat-related morbidity and mortality
  • Mental health and stress-related disorders
  • Vector-borne and zoonotic diseases
  • Water-borne diseases
  • Weather-related morbidity and mortality

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