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Journalist Casts Climate Change as Public Health Crisis


The effects of climate change are typically described in terms of environmental destruction, from melting polar ice caps to extinction of rare species.

To spur action on the issue, Dan Ferber, Ph.D., said the public should understand how climate change adversely impacts human health—and how its negative effects will increase exponentially if nothing is done to stop it.

Ferber, co-author of Changing Planet, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do About It (University of California Press, 2011), addressed the issue with 19 Fordham business professors on April 26 on the Lincoln Center campus.

“Climate change is a public health problem of important dimensions already, and it is growing,” Ferber said. He cited a 2005 report from the World Health Organization that estimated 150,000 deaths and five million illnesses annually that were directly attributable to climate change.

“In the last couple of years, major medical and nursing organizations have all gotten on board and said that this is a serious issue that we need to be dealing with now,” he said.

Ferber listed four ways that climate change harms health:

  •  infectious disease;
  •  respiratory disease;
  •  extreme weather; and
  •  infestation and disease of trees and crops.

Regarding infectious disease, he gave as an example the Central Kenyan Highlands, an elevated region that once was free from malaria because mosquitoes that carry the disease could not live in the highlands’ colder temperatures.

A tipping point occurred in 1993, when climate change caused the overall temperature of the highlands to increase just enough that the mosquitoes can survive there.

“If you raise the temperature just a little bit, the mosquito larve mature faster; they take more blood meals; and inside the mosquitoes, the parasites develop faster,” Ferber said. “So just a one- or two-degree Celsius difference makes a huge difference in the life cycle of the insect and the parasite.”

He pointed out that in the United States, vector-borne diseases such as Lyme disease and West Nile Fever have moved into new areas and increased in already established regions.

“Lyme disease has increased 10-fold in Maine and eight-fold in New Hampshire in the last 10 years—so this is happening right now in this country,” he said. “West Nile Fever is very common in a lot of states now.”

Ferber trades ideas with members of Fordham’s business faculty.
Photo by Ken Levinson

Although the links between respiratory illness and pollution have been established, scientists recently teased out how pollution will become much more harmful due to increased carbon dioxide.

For example, the level of carbon dioxide that is expected to be in the atmosphere by mid-century will cause the common allergenic plant ragweed to produce twice as much pollen, Ferber said, and that pollen will be twice as potent. Moreover, soot particles from man-made pollution have shown the tendency to glom onto the pollen particles and travel into the lungs as a single entity.

After 10 years of massive natural disasters on a global scale—including the Indonesian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, Haitian earthquake, Pakistan floods and recent tornado deaths in the American South—it has become clear that climate change creates more intense weather phenomena, he said.

“Although climate change doesn’t seen to affect the total number of hurricanes, stronger hurricanes have grown more common in the last 50 years,” Ferber said.

He added that the final product of climate change—the infestation and disease of trees and crops—has garnered far less interest than the other three effects. With the world’s population on target to reach 9 billion by 2050, there are expected to be food shortages because common crops such as corn are adversely affected by a slight rise in temperature, and more insects will be on hand to ravage whatever crops do survive.

Ferber’s sobering message was tempered by solutions he offered that ranged from the individual to the international level. Using a public-health model, he detailed three types of responses:

  •  primary prevention—change conditions that harm health by creating a low-carbon economy and preserving forests;
  •  secondary prevention—predict epidemics and heat waves and move early to protect people; and
  •  tertiary prevention—treat patients who already have become ill and prevent the progression of disasters.

The event, which was sponsored by the Global Healthcare Innovation Management Center at Fordham, was lauded by David A. Gautschi, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School of Business Administration.

“Health care is something that business schools have not really stepped up to address, and it’s quite a pity, considering how significant healthcare is in the American economy—17 or 18 percent of GDP these days and possibly still growing,” Gautschi said.

“This is staggering, in terms of its contribution to the economic life of this country, and yet we know that it is beset with so many issues. Many relate directly to what business schools are all about—understanding management, understanding business, markets and enterprise,” he said.

“This particular presentation is hitting on all the bases.”


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