Final installment of seminar series examines the role public health plays in the climate crisis

Climate & Health Seminars explored the intersection of public health and climate change, from pandemic preparedness to global supply chains

The three-part Climate & Health Seminar Series came to a close last week, exploring the intersection of climate change and public health, both locally and globally. Focusing on the increasing need to address climate change in the public health space, SPH hosted three conversations beginning in the spring featuring Brown University faculty members from the School of Public Health, the Warren Alpert Medical School, and partnering units across campus.

The first seminar in the series, titled “Will Climate Change Cause the Next Pandemic?”, looked deeply at the effects that climate change is having on the likelihood of pandemics, as well as their severity. The second, “How Extreme Weather Events Impact Our Health and Wellbeing”, examined the global health emergencies caused by extreme weather events such as floods and wildfires. 

The most recent seminar, hosted by Interim Dean Ronald Aubert, featured Brown University faculty members Kim Cobb, director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Irene Papanicolas, professor of health services, policy and practice, and Adam Levine, director for the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies. 

Dean Aubert began the discussion on the topic of climate change, specifically its influence on public policy in the last several decades. Professor Cobb posited that the field has seen a dramatic shift in priorities in that time, as global temperature trends have metastasized. “One degree or two degrees might seem like small change, but for each increment of warming we are looking at big extremes,” she explained. “We’re talking about agricultural droughts, freshwater systems and supplies, and of course wildfires.”

I believe that air conditioners are the mosquito nets of the 21st century.

Adam Levine Professor of Emergency Medicine and Of Health Services, Policy and Practice; Director of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Professor Levine, who has led research and training initiatives in East and West Africa and South and South-East Asia, took a broad approach to the question. He focused on the increasing frequency and severity of climate events, and how large population trends were exacerbating the issue. As cities and coastal areas become more densely populated, he said “people are moving into the paths of natural hazards.” He also noted that mitigating overheating should be front of mind for policy makers. “I believe that air conditioners are the mosquito nets of the 21st century,” he said. 

Professor Papanicolas took the opportunity to highlight the efforts that are being made by some of the largest economies in the world. “The U.K., for instance, has committed to reaching net zero emissions by 2050,” she said. But Papanicolas, herself a health economist and health services researcher, stressed that more countries need to step up, including the United States. “How do we create global action where people become part of the solution, not just because it’s good for them, but for the global good?” she said. “It’s a problem of global fragmentation.”

The conversation turned to local challenges and solutions, as Dean Aubert asked the panelists how Brown can contribute to the cause. Professor Cobb highlighted the need for cooperation between universities, policy makers, and the community. She encouraged stakeholders to ask questions. “What does it mean to survive a heat wave in Providence today? What does resilience look like to you?” she posed. 

How are we bringing our students with us? We need to answer that in real time.

Kim Cobb Professor of Environment and Society and of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences; Director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society

This sentiment was echoed by Professor Levine. “This is the benefit of being in the smallest state. [Rhode Island] has the opportunity to make policy and lead. We are going to be hosting the largest wind farm in America,” referring to the offshore wind project which will begin taking proposals later this year. Professor Papanicolas stressed the need for accountability. “If you’re going to become carbon neutral, what are the metrics that you are going to use to measure that?” she said.

After taking questions from the audience, the panel concluded the Climate & Health Seminar Series for the the academic year. Learn more about the Climate & Health Series, and check out the series videos.