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Environmental Factor, January 2012

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Balbus discusses health adaptation at climate change summit

By Eddy Ball

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

Balbus outlined efforts to provide information to the public health community. He said people in every sector need to evaluate the positive and negative effects of adaptation efforts. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, D.Phil.

“Climate change will generally challenge health systems across the world,” Campbell-Lendrum explained, pointing to the need for what he described as preventive public health plus. His presentation examined parallels between what is being done about adaptation and early warning in the U.S. with what is happening in Africa. (Photo courtesy of WHO)

Politicians will no doubt continue to debate in the months ahead about the accomplishments of the latest U.N. Climate Change Conference held in Durban, South Africa last month (see text box).

But as delegates struggled with how to stem climate change on the international agreement level, a side event presentation Dec. 8 on “Saving Lives — Advances in Health Adaptation for Climate Change,” organized by NIEHS Senior Advisor for Public Health John Balbus, M.D., explored early warning systems and frameworks for vulnerability and adaptation assessments for human health. Balbus gave the opening talk describing U.S. efforts to help people and communities become more resilient to the health effects of climate change in their daily lives.

Joining Balbus, who represents the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on the U.S. Global Change Research Program, as speakers at the event were Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, D.Phil., and Bill Breed. Campbell-Lendrum, a senior scientist in the department of Public Health and Environment at the World Health Organization (WHO), spoke on early warning systems for vector-borne diseases in Africa, and Breed, the director of the Global Climate Change Team at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), described his agency’s activities dealing with famine, drought, and other health issues in Africa.

A year with dramatic evidence of climate change

Balbus opened his guardedly upbeat talk with a review of the impact of climate change on the people in the U.S. during 2011. He pointed to the record 12 billion-dollar disasters caused by hurricanes, heat waves, drought, wildfire, and floods last year, with near-record levels of summer dryness and rainfall. Equally disturbing, he added, was a wave of new records for summer nighttime minimum temperatures, interfering with the circadian rhythm that helps people cope physiologically and psychologically with the stress of high daytime temperatures.

The record level of weather stress in 2011, Balbus said, has helped reinforce the message that climate change has serious implications for human health, with some 1,000 deaths directly attributed to events associated with climate change. Across sectors, public health professionals are becoming increasingly interested in preparing for the effects of climate disruption.

Integrating research on the health effects of climate change

“The public health community has really emerged,” Balbus said. “It’s becoming clear to more and more people that many of the measures we need to undertake actually improve health with economic benefits that can offset the cost of climate change mitigation.” The result has been a significant expansion of efforts to better anticipate weather events, identify susceptible populations as far down as to the neighborhood and block level, and integrate awareness of climate change across governmental and professional sectors.

Balbus pointed to support by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to state and local public health departments, for needs assessment and mapping studies with GIS software and algorithms to develop effective adaptation programs for early warning and for helping people cope with climate events. He described the upsurge in interagency efforts, such as the interagency crosscutting Climate Change and Human Health Group co-chaired by NIEHS, and initiatives to bring climate change understanding to bear on the activities of other government agencies to help shape their ongoing activities.

“We have an uphill battle,” Balbus conceded, but increased awareness is helping people learn to ask the right questions about the positive and negative effects of their plans and activities. A new National Climate Assessment, now underway and due for completion in 2013, will improve understanding of climate change impacts across the United States, he added.

Nine new NIH grants administered by NIEHS are supporting research on vulnerability to health effects of climate change, the effectiveness of interventions, and the possible negative effects of some adaptations (see story).

John Balbus, M.D.

In addition to his Dec. 8 presentation, Balbus was also a part of a side event Dec. 7, “U.S. Federal Actions for a Climate Resilient Nation,” which highlighted Executive Branch and private sector actions on climate change. (Photo courtesy of John Balbus)

Bill Breed,director of the Global Climate Change Team at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)

“We’re looking at health in the context of a changing environment,” Breed said. Like his colleagues, he emphasized that climate change research can impact aspects of life in ways that may not be intuitive, such as in agriculture, urban planning, and architecture. (Photo courtesy of U.S. State Department)

U.N. Climate Change Conference 2011

The 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and 7th Session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties (CMP7) to the Kyoto Protocol gathered science and policy experts from around the world Nov 28-Dec. 9 for two weeks of discussions and negotiations.

In 1992, Rio de Janeiro hosted the historic Earth Summit, a U.N. event unprecedented both for its size and the scope of its concerns. The 172 states represented there — 108 by heads of state or government — adopted the UNFCCC, which constitutes the political framework to implement and update an international global climate change strategy. The convention allows countries to create instruments to support the mitigation and adaptation efforts of developing countries.

Under the convention, governments gather and share information on greenhouse gas emissions, national policies, and best practices with the goal of launching national strategies for addressing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to expected impacts, including the provision of financial and technological support to developing countries.

In 1997, the parties adopted an addendum to the convention, known as the Kyoto Protocol, which implements the obligations contained in the convention under the common but differentiated responsibility principle, by establishing specific emission targets for developed countries. Likewise, the protocol establishes the market mechanisms that promote private sector involvement in the global emission reduction effort.

In 2011, for the third consecutive year, the U.S. State Department operated a U.S. Center at the meeting to showcase U.S. climate actions and foster discussion on key issues. The U.S. Center hosted side events at COP17/CMP7 sponsored by U.S. government agencies, such as HHS, and other organizations with interests related to climate change.

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