Apr. 14 2015

President Obama Cites Mailman School Research on Climate and Health

Last week the White House convened an unprecedented meeting of scientists, government officials, and representatives from major universities and technology companies to shine a light on the incontrovertible link between climate and health.

“Climate change is having an impact on our public health,” said President Obama in April 7 remarks that referenced, among other concerns, heightened asthma risk from a prolonged allergy season and the migration of insect-borne diseases to new regions—both topics studied by scientists in the Mailman School’s Climate and Health Program, the first such academic program in the U.S. when it was founded in 2008.

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Pat Kinney poses in the White House

Two of those scientists—Patrick Kinney and Jeffrey Shaman, both professors of Environmental Health Sciences, were invited guests at the Eisenhower Office Building to hear Presidential Science and Technology Advisor John P. Holdren, as well as Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who referred to health risks from intensified heat waves and ozone—issues also studied by the School’s researchers.

According to Kinney, who directs the Climate and Health program, the majority of the science that the administration relies on in the field of climate and health  has been generated by schools of public health, led by pioneering work at the Mailman School that began more than 10 years ago. “If schools of public health hadn’t taken a leadership role,” said Kinney, “we wouldn’t be in the position we are in now to tackle the problem, nationally, with improved health directing our energies.”

In his speech, President Obama said that 150 new datasets on climate in public health from agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would be opened to the public at climate.data.gov—in part to allow companies like Google and Microsoft to use the information to create apps to help communities educate and protect themselves. Among a number of related executive actions were calls for improved data on air quality and nutrient pollution. 

On April 9, representatives from 30 schools of medicine, nursing, and public health—including Kinney for the Mailman School—pledged to make climate and health part of their curriculum. Kinney spoke about the need for federal leadership in strengthening the science that underpins our understanding of climate and health.

The events coincided with Public Health Week, which President Obama made official on April 6 with a proclamation that pledged his Administration’s commitment to preventing the health effects of climate change. The following day he made it clear that the issue would not be limited to a single week, announcing that the White House would host a climate and health summit later this spring.

For many in public health, the presidential attention signaled a valuable reframing of climate change from an environmental concern to a serious health risk.

“It’s extremely gratifying to see the connection between climate and health made at such a high level,” said Mailman School Dean Linda P. Fried. “The recognition of climate as a public health issue will lead to more awareness and more action to address climate change. It’s a watershed moment.”