Climate & Health Seminar Series Kicks Off Asking: “Will climate change cause the next pandemic?”

The seminar focused on the connection between a warming planet and public health, with a call for a concerted, interdisciplinary effort across universities, hospitals and governments.

The impact of climate change on our health is a growing concern, as the Earth’s rising temperatures threaten not just the natural world but also our health and well-being. The World Health Organization has identified climate change as the paramount health threat to humanity, and the effects are being felt globally. This issue is not just a future concern, but a pressing issue that demands immediate attention and action.

This was the message from experts at the first installment of the Climate & Health seminar series held at Brown University’s School of Public Health. The seminar, entitled “Will Climate Change Cause the Next Pandemic?” focused on the connection between a warming planet and public health, with a call for a concerted, interdisciplinary effort across universities, hospitals and governments.

Dr. Megan Ranney, deputy dean of the School of Public Health, opened the event by saying that the world is already feeling the impact of climate change. “Millions of people around the world face fires, floods, and extreme temperatures. This corresponds to a rise in respiratory illness, worsening mental health and an increase in firearm injuries, which surge during days of extreme heat. We are also seeing the potential emergence and spread of new vector-borne diseases.”

The panel comprised Dr. Craig Spencer, associate professor of the practice of health services, policy and practice, Jennifer Nuzzo, founding director of the Pandemic Center and professor of epidemiology, and Rachel Baker, assistant professor of epidemiology and of environment and society.

Panelists discussed how factors such as rapid urbanization, globalization, habitat destruction, and cramped living conditions for farm animals exacerbate the spread of infectious diseases. They also addressed the increasing uncertainty surrounding the duration of seasonal illnesses and the speed at which new pathogens are emerging.

“We’re seeing more year-round diseases,” said Baker. “Patterns of scale with latitude give us a sign that climate change might be involved. How is climate change going to alter these patterns? How will it alter the timing and intensity? We need evidence-based policies on how to measure and mitigate these risks.”

We would rather prevent a pandemic than respond to one.

Jennifer Nuzzo Founding Director of the Pandemic Center

“It’s fundamentally important to understand that these threats are not one-offs,” said Professor Nuzzo, whose research specializes in pandemic preparedness and government response. “They have been steadily increasing over the years. Gathering the evidence will help us stop the loss of life and prepare for important first steps. We would rather prevent a pandemic than respond to one.”

Spencer shared his personal experience treating migrants who have been forced to leave their homes due to the shrinking of Lake Chad, which has contracted by 90% since the 1960s due largely to climate change. The loss of Lake Chad has disrupted agriculture, access to clean water, and local livelihoods, which in turn has upended day-to-day life in the area and aided the growing strength of militant groups like Boko Haram.

The effects of climate change are not limited to other countries: Rhode Island is experiencing hotter temperatures more often than it did in the 1950s and ’60s, according to a Brown University study. In urban neighborhoods, often with high poverty levels, temperatures can be as much as 7° F warmer than in neighborhoods with more vegetation, denser tree coverage, and less traffic congestion. 

The panelists stressed the importance of gathering evidence to understand and address these threats. “Only a truly interdisciplinary effort can do the research and collect the data, which are crucial to informing the public and decision-makers,” said Baker.

For Nuzzo, preventing the next pandemic requires buy-in and a foundation of trust. Beyond presenting convincing evidence, public health professionals must also push for engagement between policymakers and community members. Nuzzo noted that public health has traditionally had wide bipartisan support. “No administration wanted to get caught flat footed by an emergency. That changed with COVID, and it matters because you cannot do public health without sufficient public engagement. You need those relationships in advance.”

The second installment of the Climate & Health seminar series, “How Extreme Weather Events Impact our Health and Well-being,” will be held at 4 pm on Monday, March 13, 2023 at the Brown University School of Public Health.

Climate & Health


Will climate change cause the next pandemic?