ATLANTA – When the CDC canceled a planned Climate Change & Health conference—apparently seeking a low profile on the issue given the new administration in DC—civil society stepped up.
Former Vice President Al Gore called former President Jimmy Carter, who offered to host the conference at the Carter Center in Atlanta. “The CDC has to be a little cautious politically … the Carter Center doesn’t,” Carter quipped at yesterday’s conference.
With willing partners from APHA, Harvard, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Washington, and others, Gore’s Climate Reality Project pulled off a smaller version of the original vision—a 3-day conference jam-packed into a day. The meeting focused on connecting the dots between climate change and health—and rallying civil society and the public health community to step up its response.
More than 340 scientists, educators, doctors, public health workers, community environmental officers, social justice advocates, environmental NGOs leaders and donors attended. Some speakers had to participate via conference call; they were denied visas because they had performed medical work in Iran.
While the speakers didn’t dwell on the reasons the conference almost didn’t take place, others weren’t afraid to confront the elephant (not) in the room. Steve Hansen, a physician from California stood up during a Q&A session with a call to action for the public health community, pointing out that the fossil fuel industries are drawing their tactics straight from Big Tobacco. “Let’s stick up, public health, for what you know is right. Don’t cancel conferences,” he said.
APHA president Georges Benjamin emphasized that the public health field will not step back. “Our work will not be impeded by denial, misdirection or intimidation,” he said, and added that APHA has the CDC’s back as well. The association declared 2017 the year of climate and health, and views this meeting as a kick-off for a year’s worth of events to keep climate change and health at the forefront, culminating at its annual meeting in November—also set to take place in Atlanta.
Framing climate change as a health issue, Gore and other speakers chronicled the current array of health effects linked to rising temperatures: including heat waves in Europe, Pakistan, and the US, warming waters that invite the spread of cholera to new regions, and vectorborne diseases moving into more northern climes.
We can’t delay, emphasized Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. He said that as the climate changes so will the infectious diseases that we confront, leading to more outbreaks like Ebola and Zika, and more pandemics like the bird flu. “And here’s the catch. Walls will not keep these pathogens out. That’s what awaits us unless we act,” Jha said.
These are bleak realities. But Gore and other speakers emphasized that there is good news: We know how to solve this. “If we could implement the solutions, they would take us away from this dangerous trajectory,” said Sir Andy Haines, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. But he warned that motivating people through fear is a difficult approach that can foster negativity.
Lise Van Susteren, an advisory board member at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that hope for humanity might depend on our ability to stir empathy. “In times of peril and scarcity people regress,” she said. “They turn to what they perceive as strong leaders to protect them. They’re willing to give up their freedom and values in exchange for a perceived sense of security.” But she called the collective failure to act an act of aggression and child abuse toward future generations, noting that when disasters are no longer experienced solely as acts of nature but derived from the behavior of humans it will be much tougher on us—because what happens from intentional negligence is harder to put behind us than what happens accidentally.” And the people who will suffer the most, as Carter emphasized, will be the people who live “in the poorest villages in the poorest nations on Earth.”