Departments collaborate on panel discussing future climate change and health

Tuesday, February 26, 2019 - 8:12pm

Panelist John M. Balbus, senior adviser for public health at the NIEHS, discusses the aspects of human health mentioned in the Fourth National Climate Assessment (Vol. II) at the Climate Change and Health forum at Palmer Commons Tuesday.

Panelist John M. Balbus, senior adviser for public health at the NIEHS, discusses the aspects of human health mentioned in the Fourth National Climate Assessment (Vol. II) at the Climate Change and Health forum at Palmer Commons Tuesday. Buy this photo
Michael Bagazinski/Daily

On Tuesday, The Michigan Center on Lifestage Environmental Exposures and Disease sponsored its annual “Climate Change and Health: What the Science Says and What We Can Do” forum in collaboration with the Environmental Health Sciences department of the School of Public Health and the School for Environment and Sustainability of the University of Michigan.

Trish Koman, University researcher in the Public Health School and School of Engineering, moderated the event. She had previously worked on the event and helped choose this year’s topic of climate change and health.

“We wanted to talk about climate change and health because there is a really strong connection between what happens in the environment and public health,” Koman said. “And we wanted to have people understand the science and understand what they can do.”

The first speaker was F. Dubois Bowman, dean of the Public Health School. Bowman emphasized the University's historical dedication to climate change and environmental issues, referencing a student-organized environmental teach-in on the University’s campus in 1970. He introduced the theme of an integrated approach to solving climate change.

“Our University’s history tells us that the issue of climate and health has been at the forefront of our concern for over a half century,” Bowman said. “The challenges and barriers to effective management of climate change and public health are no longer purely environmental — in fact, no longer purely scientific. They’re ethical, social, political and economic.”

John M. Balbus, senior adviser for public health at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, echoed Bowman’s views on taking a multidisciplinary approach to climate change. He explained that the University, with a large variety of programs and resources, has the capacity to create integrated solutions.

“We have to think about solutions that are not just focused on climate change, but are focused on real communities and real people and think in an integrated fashion,” Balbus said. “The challenges that we face, and especially the solutions that need to be implemented, are solutions that cut across every single program of this school, whether it’s the engineering side, legal side, social science side and even the cultural side.”

Kim Knowlton, senior scientist and deputy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council focused on four key diverse areas, each related to climate change: science, education, law and people. She explained the health risks associated with extreme heat, and the impacts that legal action can have.

“Detroit could see by the 2080’s a 120 percent increase (in heat-related mortality),” Knowlton said. “That’s more than doubling, in heat-related mortality, but if we go to a lower-emissions carbon pollution scenario, if we put limits on our carbon pollution, we could cut that in half.”

Knowlton felt the current climate and health issues present an opportunity for reform.

“We might think of all this as opportunity … to move toward a smarter, more strategic, more equitable, healthier, more sustainable future,” Knowlton said. “It is our demand to move toward that future that is really going to push this boat forward. It’s not going to happen as we sit back.”

Knowlton also highlighted the University’s efforts to decrease carbon dioxide, use more wind and solar energy and incentivize energy efficiency.

Questions varied during the panel session, ranging from the topic of floods to the limiting the carbon footprint of medical institutions. LSA freshman Ariana Mitcham asked the panel about helping countries with fewer resources approach climate issues while managing environmental issues within the country.

“The U.S. thinks very, very differently about development and about development assistance than the rest of the world,” Balbus said. “As historically one of the larger polluters of the atmosphere, (Americans) need to address our own actions. The rest of the world frames this kind of a question these days, to a large degree, in terms of the Sustainable Development Goals, from a policy perspective. I think one of the important ways to address a complicated interrelated set of challenges in countries like Myanmar is through an institutional framework.”

Mitcham reflected to The Daily after the event on the opportunity to engage with the speakers.

“The speakers are the best in their field, so it’s the best knowledge you can get.”

Mitcham said she left the event feeling more educated about heat-related issues.

“It’s something that I never had thought about,” Mitcham said. “You can see Michigan doesn’t have as many heat stroke cases as other states. It really hits you, because you don’t really see that here, so it placed me in the position of those people.”

A reception followed the event featuring student and community organizations, including the Citizens’ Climate Lobby and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s SmartWay program. Koman invited these organizations with the intention of encouraging attendees to take action following the event.

“I think that students, faculty and staff, and community members, everyone needs to be acting in their everyday lives to be thinking deeply about their carbon footprint, how to make these changes,” Koman said. “We’ve got a lot of really exciting solutions coming, and we all need to be a part of them.”

Balbus echoed Koman’s emphasis on continued activism.

“You guys are citizens of the University, and you have a voice in decisions the University makes, and this is a big place with a lot of impact,” Balbus said.