Message not to be Lost in Debate: Public Health Risks from Climate Change are Key Concern - Oct 26, 2007
Comment by Professor Jonathan A. Patz, University of Wisconsin, Madison
With all the attention over the Bush Administration's mishandling of senate testimony by CDC Director, Julie Gerberding, I fear that the central clear message is being overshadowed by the (albeit errant) procedural aspects of the situation. Serving as a Lead Author for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports of 1995, 1998, 2001, and 2007 (and Health Co-Chair for the US National Assessment on Climate Change) I can reaffirm that the original CDC testimony was scientifically accurate and consistent with IPCC findings.
But more than enough press has focused on the handling of the testimony, and not enough on the important messages that Congress and the American public need to know about Global Warming. These are:
1) Our public's health is indeed at risk from the effects of climate change acting via numerous hazardous exposure pathways, including: more intense and frequent heat waves and storms; ozone smog pollution and increased pollen allergens; insect-borne and water-borne infectious diseases; and disease risks from outside the US - afterall, we live in a globalized world. Some benefits from reduced cold and some decline in certain diseases can be expected, however, the scientific assessments have consistently found that, on balance, the health risks outweigh the benefits.
2) The Department of Health and Human Services, that includes CDC and NIH, are responsible for protecting the health of the American public. To the extent that extremes of climate can have broad population-wide impacts, neither the CDC nor NIH have directed adequate resources to address climate change, and to date, funding has been minimal compared to the size of the health threat.
3) There are potentially large opportunities and co-benefits in addressing the health risks of global warming. Certainly, our public health infrastructure must be strengthened, e.g, fortify water supply systems, heat and storm early warning and response programs, and enhance disease modeling and surveillance. However, energy policy now becomes one and the same as public health policy. Reducing fossil fuel burning will: (a) further reduce air pollution, (b) improve our fitness (e.g., if urban transportation planning allows for more Americans to travel by foot or bike, than by car), and (c) lessen potential greenhouse warming.
In short, the challenges posed by climate change urgently demand improving public health infrastructure AND energy conservation / urban planning policies - as such, climate change can present both enormous health risks and opportunities. But without funding from Congress to address climate change, CDC has its hands tied.
Global & Sustainable Environmental Health at the University of Wisconsin, Madison
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