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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

January 2022

Climate change spurs big new plan for health research

NIH-wide initiative will expand research capacity, promote effective interventions, and build collaborations that improve health equity.

Building on its decades of work to advance scientific knowledge about how climate change affects human health, NIEHS is leading a new federal collaboration to significantly scale-up research and action in this critical area.

Seven National Institutes of Health (NIH) institutes and centers (ICs) recently joined forces to establish the NIH Climate Change and Health (CCH) Initiative. The concept was presented and approved in a special open session of the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council (NAEHSC) on Nov. 29.

globe The goals of the new initiative are to reduce climate change-related health threats across the lifespan and to build resilience in individuals, communities, and nations around the world, especially among those at highest risk. (Photo courtesy of MoreVector / Shutterstock.com)

“Although NIEHS has been one of the lead ICs on climate change and health, it is clear that climate change greatly elevates threats to human health across a wide range of illnesses and injuries that are being studied throughout NIH,” said NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D. “This is bigger than what NIEHS or any single IC can do.”

Presidential order shapes initiative

President Joe Biden created the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity in 2021 (see sidebar) and issued Executive Order 14008 for a government-wide approach to the climate crisis based on an environmental justice framework.

“Since the inauguration last January, there has been an increasing focus on climate change across the federal government,” said Woychik.

Roy Woychik Last November, Woychik spoke at an NIH Rural Health Seminar and pointed out that climate change significantly affects rural areas, causing drought, fires, and extreme heat. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)

He added that the President requested $100 million for the new initiative, which awaits Congressional approval.

The research plan is based on the following objectives.

  • Identify risks and optimize benefits to the health of individuals, communities, and populations from actions to mitigate or adapt to climate change.
  • Develop the necessary research infrastructure and workforce to enable the generation of timely and relevant knowledge, drawing from the full spectrum of biomedical disciplines.
  • Leverage partnerships with other scientific and social disciplines and organizations to achieve the most impactful results.
  • Innovate across the research translation continuum to ensure findings are credible, accessible, and actionable for achieving these goals.

Input from across NIH

Woychik and six other IC directors serve on the CCH Initiative’s Executive Committee.

“Most notably, the Executive Committee has re-energized a longstanding working group with more than 120 members from 18 ICs and four offices across NIH,” said Woychik.

That Climate Change and Health Working Group is co-chaired by NIEHS Senior Medical Advisor Aubrey Miller, M.D., and FIC Senior Scientist Joshua Rosenthal, Ph.D. NIEHS Acting Deputy Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D., serves as strategic advisor.

Claudia Thompson Thompson said climate equity, environmental justice, and domestic and international partnerships will all be part of the research, education, and outreach activities of the CCH Initiative. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)

Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), also supports an NIH-wide approach to climate change and health research, noted Woychik. Fauci has appointed a member of his senior staff to represent NIAID on the working group’s steering committee.

Exposures, socioeconomic issues, and mental health

Claudia Thompson, Ph.D., chief of the NIEHS Population Health Branch, provided council members with an overview of the new initiative.

“Climate change is putting our planet and all its inhabitants at risk,” she said, noting that those most vulnerable are from under-resourced and marginalized populations. “The complexity of climate change impacts on health is enormous, and it is mediated by interrelated environmental exposures and social and behavioral factors.”

Gordon, NIMH director, agreed with Thompson, adding that climate change also affects mental health.

“We know about the mental health impacts of migrations, disasters, and economic stresses, but it is important that we do the research necessary to understand which communities are going to be most affected and develop interventions that can help mitigate these effects,” he said. “We are pleased that we have the opportunity to help build a program in this area.”

Partnerships and communication

Partnerships with institutions that serve minorities and are located in areas of particularly high climate risk should be prioritized in the CCH Initiative’s request for research proposals, suggested council member Lynn Goldman, M.D., from George Washington University.

Communication also will be key, according to Carmen Zorrilla, M.D., from the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine.

“We are living in a world that has a lot of communication and miscommunication,” Zorrilla said. “Messages regarding climate change have been positive and negative, true and false. This initiative needs to pay attention to those messages to make sure that we have strategies to deal with misinformation.”

Transdisciplinary transformative research includes health effects research, health equity, training & capacity building and intervention science, global, cross-sector, interagency, & community partnerships and systems science, adaptive research, basic and mechanistic research, behaviorial and social sciences research, data integration, disaster research response, dissemination and implementation science, epidemiology and predictive modeling and exposure and risk assessment.

Thompson pointed out that the new initiative will require collaboration across a range of scientific disciplines and social sectors. (Image courtesy of NIEHS)

CCH Initiative moves forward

“Implementation of the Climate Change and Health Initiative will require experts from a wide breadth of fields,” Thompson said. “The use of current infrastructure will enable us to create a sustainable research portfolio. This is just the beginning of a long-sustained climate change and health program for the NIH.”

The first step is to implement a research agenda by expanding funding across the NIH ecosystem and broadly advertising the initiative’s notices of special interest, called NOSIs.

“I think there’s probably no other issue that could be as global as climate change,” concluded Glass, FIC Director. “It affects absolutely everyone, everywhere.”

Questions or comments about the NIH-wide CCH Initiative may be emailed to national.advisory.council@niehs.nih.gov.

(Jennifer Harker, Ph.D., is a technical writer-editor in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

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