White House emphasizes impact of climate change on public health

The Obama administration on Tuesday unveiled a long list of actions ranging from corporate and academic partnerships to community programs to highlight the health impacts of climate change.

Tech giants such as Google and Microsoft will conduct disease research, universities will train the next generation of health experts and cities such as Durham, N.C., and Kansas City, Kan., will monitor local air quality.

All of these efforts and others are part of a multipronged approach to both better educate people on the threat of climate change and how it could affect their quality of life.

The effort stretches across multiple government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA.

President Barack Obama on Monday declared this week National Public Health Week, with activities focused on the public health dangers of climate change.

“We all need to do our part,” Obama said at a Howard University School of Medicine roundtable discussion with experts on the health effects of climate change. “We’ve got a lot more work to do if we’re going to deal with this problem in an effective way and make sure that our families and our kids are safe.”

The administration hopes that the acceptance of climate change will rise and that the public will connect with the issue in a way that brings a change to daily life, White House senior adviser Brian Deese said in a phone call with reporters.

“The most salient arguments around climate change are associated with the health impacts and are ones that meet people where they are, and that requires making an argument around how climate is affecting local communities and individuals,” he said.

A White House fact sheet noted that while the public generally thinks of climate change as a trigger for droughts, severe storms and wildfires, less talked about are the health problems that can result. It said these particularly occur in low-income communities where many people, for instance, don’t have the advantage of air-conditioning and other amenities to cope with challenges resulting in heat-related deaths, Deese said.

Also, the percentage of Americans with asthma has more than doubled in the past three decades, according to a White House report.

Through the announced partnerships and research, Deese said, the government can “empower more Americans with the information and tools that they need to help take action to address this threat.”

According to NASA, 97 percent of climate scientists, as well as groups such as the American Medical Association and the American Meteorological Society, agree that human activities have very likely contributed to the warming of the planet. But it remains a politically volatile issue, often dividing along partisan and ideological lines.

Just this week, however, the issue took a strange turn when a leading conservative policy group with a history of advocating legislation to undercut efforts to slow global warming threatened to sue climate change activists who refer to the policy group as climate change deniers.

Officials at the Heartland Institute, a free market think tank based in Chicago, issued a statement criticizing the White House effort.

“Climate change, if it poses any true threat of harm, is at best a distant threat – with fewer, less severe hurricanes and greater crop yields, rather than the opposite being the norm,” said H. Sterling Burnett, an environment and energy policy research fellow at the institute. “Linking asthma and children’s health problems to climate change is the worst form of hype.”

A Gallup poll last month showed that 55 percent of Americans believe that increases in the Earth’s temperature are because of pollution as a result of human activities and 77 percent say they understand global warming either very well or fairly well.

In the latest administration climate change initiative, Microsoft will use technology to better understand the environment as part of a data collection effort, said Ethan Jackson, a researcher with Microsoft Research who was also on the White House call.

It is extremely difficult to compile information about pathogens, so most surveillance can only detect diseases after an outbreak begins. But Jackson said Microsoft is developing a system to capture mosquitoes and identify pathogens before people are infected.

“We’re particularly interested in applying safer systems to better understand the state of the environment and its implications on human health and agriculture,” Jackson said.

Scientists also will be able to use the Google Earth Engine, with technical assistance from Google staff, to study diseases such as malaria and to visualize global fires and oil and gas flares. This information will be used to create early warnings for diseases and a public disease-risk map.

Locally, “Village Green” park bench stations will be in cities across the U.S., including Durham, N.C., and Kansas City, Kan. This project uses solar and wind power to measure the local air quality and increase a community’s awareness of global warming impacts. Other participants will be Washington, Philadelphia; Chicago; Oklahoma City and Hartford, Conn.

Universities also will help inform the public on climate change with commitments from medical, nursing and public health school deans across the country to train students on addressing the health impacts of climate change.

“The sooner and more aggressively we act, the more we know we can do to reduce these impacts of climate change and to protect the health of our communities,” Deese said.

Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.