Climate change and public health

I rarely write about climate change. As much as it’s been hashed out amongst climate scientists, and even many of the former “climate skeptics” have now changed their tune, I readily accept that climate change is happening, and is happening largely due to human activities. More importantly for my field, climate change is also having effects on human health in a number of different ways, from the movement of insect vectors into new areas, to warming of the seas leading to more extreme weather conditions, to the loss of coral reefs and the freshwater that these reefs protect from the surrounding oceans. It’s an immense field, and it seems that every time I turn around, another paper is published detailing the public health effects of climate change.

Luckily for me, many of these examples have been carefully documented in a recent book by Paul Epstein and Dan Ferber, Changing Planet, Changing Health. Epstein was a maverick in this field, trained as a physician who had carried out global health research in several African countries. In his previous position helping to run the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard, he led research into a variety of areas in tropical medicine, including the role of climate in disease epidemiology. Unfortunately, as I was finishing up this book last night, the New York Times reported that Dr. Epstein passed away at the age of 67. This is a huge loss to the field, but work in this area will certainly continue, and we’re likely to only see more connections between disease and global warming in the coming years and validation of his passions and ideas.

“Changing Planet, Changing Health” is deceptively expansive. It’s a mere 300 pages before notes and index, but it takes you on a journey investigating the movement of mosquitoes in Africa, cyanide in Honduras, soybean rust in Illinois, pine beetles in Colorado, and even flooding in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And yet, the book never felt disconnected to me–Epstein & Ferber manage to draw the myriad climate-associated threads together into a well-woven tapestry, and fluidly move from one topic to another. They also discuss what needs to be done to curb this destruction in the last chapter.

Of course, the last chapter is also one of the toughest. While climate change is harming our health in a thousand different ways every day, there’s still denial in many circles that it’s even happening, and none of the solutions to curb it are easy. Furthermore, too many people still see it as “just a polar bear problem” rather than something that actually makes a difference in their lives. This needs to change. Epstein and Ferber succeed in making climate change personal: something everyone who eats and breathes should be concerned about.