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The Climate Crisis Is a Health Crisis.


"We are hoping through educating the public by sharing information, more people will begin to understand the devastating effects of climate change and how we can each care and act in ways that will help provide a healthier planet today and into the future." Jeannette Kravitz, Executive Director

This summer saw a terrifying onslaught of climate-related disasters and portents—wildfires, floods, extreme temperatures, drought, signs of a collapsing Gulf Stream, an iceberg the size of Puerto Rico, the world’s biggest rainforest becoming a net emitter of carbon dioxide. Then came the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, 4,000 pages of rigorous science on the cataclysmic consequences of fossil fuel emissions.

According to Cecilia Sorensen, the new director of the Global Consortium on Climate Health Education (GCCHE) at the Columbia Mailman School, the climate crisis is also a crisis for human health, and health professionals must play a critical role in mitigation and adaptation. “The UN chief called the IPCC report a ‘code red’ for humanity because, at its core, climate change is a health emergency,” says Sorensen, an emergency medicine physician by training. “We need all hands, all minds, all hearts, and unprecedented collaboration to solve this greatest challenge of our time. Now is not the time to give up, but to get up, and get to work.”

Launched in 2017, GCCHE was born out of meetings at the December 2015 COP-21 climate conference in Paris and an earlier White House special session on the need for greater investment in the study of and planning for the health impacts of climate change. Today, the Consortium has 220 members around the world who have pledged to educate their students on the health impacts of climate change, such as air pollution, extreme weather events, food and housing insecurity, heat-related illness, and vector-borne diseases. Yet many more schools must be recruited to build the global capacity necessary to address all these impacts; still too many health professions curricula turn a blind eye to climate change.

Sorensen, who joins Columbia Mailman as associate professor of environmental health sciences, argues that every health professional needs to see health through a climate lens—no matter their training. Public health workers must integrate climatologic data with health data to assess vulnerability and prevent unwanted outcomes. Nurses and community health workers need to identify early signs of heat stress in elderly patients and to assess the vulnerabilities of their patients to emergencies like flooding and loss of electricity. Physicians need to look out for growing climate-related health threats like heatstroke and vector-borne diseases.

“We’re used to planning on a future based on past experience; climate changes all that,” she says. “We need to educate ourselves on how disease dynamics are shifting. We’re going to see things we’ve never seen before.”

GCCHE has developed a set of core competencies that all health professionals need to know—such as climate mitigation and adaptation strategies and emergency planning skills—and resources to teach them. Starting this spring, the consortium will offer a “Climate and Health First Responders” series for faculty and anyone else who wants to become a climate and health educator, leader, or advocate. In the spring, a lecture series in partnership with Healthcare Without Harm will explore possibilities for mitigation; the healthcare industry, which goes through huge quantities of disposable materials, is among the biggest contributors to climate change. This summer, a Climate Health Rapid Response webinar series will tackle topics beginning with Heatwaves in the Pacific Northwest on August 26.

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