Rainer Sauerborn Headshot

Putting a Human Face on Climate Change

Focusing on the potential health impacts of climate change—such as malnutrition, an increase in infectious and chronic diseases, and more deaths from heat waves and cold snaps—may be the best way to communicate its dangers, according to speakers at a recent Harvard symposium.

“Health is the human face of climate change,” said Michelle Williams, Dean of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in opening remarks at the event, which drew 150 to Harvard Law School’s Wasserstein Hall on December 13, 2016. The symposium, “Capturing the Carbon Dividend: The Health Benefits of Climate Mitigation,” was sponsored by the Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI), and featured several experts from Harvard Chan School.

Climate change is often seen as “a remote, abstract problem expressed in parts per million, in terms of temperature change of mere degrees, or in sea-level rises predicted decades into the future,” Williams said. She said that public health experts should present another view, spelling out the dire health consequences that could occur both now and in the future if steps aren’t taken to reduce the carbon emissions that are raising the planet’s temperature.

Symposium moderator Ashish Jha, director of HGHI and K.T. Li Professor of Health Policy at Harvard Chan School, agreed. “If you look at all of the gains that we have made in human health over the last half-century, I think all of that is in some ways at risk if we don’t begin to address climate change,” he said.

Sobering predictions

Keynote speaker Rainer Sauerborn of the Institute of Public Health at Heidelberg University described various climate scenarios that could occur over the next century.

Even if the world was somehow able to immediately curb carbon emissions dramatically—a highly unlikely scenario—global temperatures would still increase by at least 2 degrees Celsius. That’s because the carbon dioxide already released from burning fossil fuels will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years, leading to effects such as reduced yields of important food crops, more severe storms, and more floods and droughts, he said. If nothing is done to reduce carbon emissions—the worst-case scenario—there will be global warming of 4 degrees or more, a change that could make some parts of the world unlivable. In some coastal areas, rising waters would cover the land. In hot regions, manual labor would become difficult or impossible as the body’s ability to thermoregulate would be exceeded on a regular basis. Health impacts would be felt most strongly by poor countries, because they have the least capacity to deal with them.

While there are some system-wide efforts that could help mitigate these effects—such as developing new vaccines or drugs to combat an increase in disease—these sorts of efforts can only go so far, Sauerborn said. It’s just as important to convince individuals to reduce their “carbon footprint.”