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Environmental Factor

January 2011

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Balbus reports on US federal climate change and health initiatives

By Matt Goad
January 2011

NIEHS Senior Advisor for Public Health John Balbus, M.D.

As NIEHS lead on climate change, Balbus is a key player in U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, trans-NIH, and interagency efforts to improve global public health. (Photo courtesy of John Balbus)

Kristie Ebi, Ph.D., speaks at a podium as Balbus looks on

Ebi, left, kicked off the panel presentation as Balbus, center, and von Hildebrand waited for their turns at the podium. (Photo courtesy of John Balbus)

NIEHS Senior Advisor for Public Health John Balbus, M.D.(, highlighted new efforts of cooperation on climate change and public health as part of a side event he organized at the United Nations Climate Change conference Dec. 3.

Balbus was the second of three experts (see text box) speaking before a live audience of nearly 50 attendees as part of COP16/CMP6, the16th edition of the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP) and the sixth Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP) meeting in Cancun, Mexico. The event was also webcast to a large virtual audience worldwide.

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In his presentation, Balbus described the creation of a new Interagency Crosscutting Group on Climate Change and Human Health within the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP)( Exit NIEHS that is coordinating and building capacity within the federal government for public health activities related to climate change, and also highlighted other related public health activities under way within the United States and internationally.

"We're starting to see, at least, broader engagement and broader involvement across the traditional health research apparatus in the United States," Balbus said with a note of cautious optimism. He then pointed to several examples of increased efforts by federal agencies to work together to study the potential impact of climate change on global public health:

  • An NIEHS-led funding opportunity begun this fall focused on population vulnerability to impacts of climate change on human health. This effort involves 13 NIH Institutes and Centers.
  • In 2009, the National Institutes of Health released the first dedicated funding opportunity for climate change and health. Five projects were funded, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (see story(
  • Also in 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched its own climate change program.
  • On Earth Day, 2010, the NIEHS-led ad hoc Interagency Working Group on Climate Change and Health released A Human Health Perspective on Climate Change, a white paper organized along the lines of how biomedical researchers and health professionals think - by categories of disease outcomes (see story(

These developments are in addition to work the federal government was already doing, Balbus continued, including early warning of famine across the globe, regional monitoring of drought, and a malaria early warning program that is a joint effort of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Balbus hypothesized that sharing efforts of U.S. agencies to work together might help the global health community to work together.

"As a physician, as a public health professional, and especially as a parent," Balbus said, "I strongly believe the public health community has to organize itself to help accomplish three things: The first thing is to help limit the extent of climate change; the second is to anticipate those adverse health impacts that may be unavoidable, and to try to either prevent them in their full extent or at least lessen their severity; and then the third, just as importantly,... is for the public health community to identify those opportunities for improving public health that are going to arise in dealing with climate change."

The federal government's work on climate change underwent a major shift in 2007, Balbus said. Before 2007, the emphasis was on determining whether climate change existed, whether human activities were causing it, and whether it could be quantified. By 2007, researchers were agreeing that the answer to these questions was yes.

The main issues now, Balbus continued, are determining the urgency, timing, and severity of climate change; determining if we have the means to actually mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to slow and ultimately reverse the process; and what we can do right now to adapt to these changes, including how to protect health.

(Matt Goad is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

Rounding out the panel of experts

In addition to Balbus, the panel included two high-profile leaders in efforts to understand and ameliorate the impact of climate change on human health:

  • Kristie Ebi, Ph.D., executive director of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)( Exit NIEHS Working Group II Technical Support Unit, surveyed the state of the science on climate change health impacts and the potential for both co-benefits and adverse health impacts from societal responses to climate change. 
  • Alexander von Hildebrand, Ph.D., advisor for Sustainable Development and Environmental Health in the Pan American Health Organization( Exit NIEHS, reported on collaborations in Latin America to help populations stay healthy as climate changes. As manifestations of global climate change become more apparent, it is critical that countries understand and commit to minimizing public health consequences.

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