The year is 1997. Jonathan Patz, a young university researcher, is organizing and leading the first-ever federal briefing on the combined topics of climate change and health to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Carol Browner. Among those in the room, he has convened an U.S. Army colonel, a Centers for Disease Control & Prevention branch chief, and other leading scientists. Patz is advised he’ll be lucky to have 30 minutes with Browner, whose agency is charged with ensuring a safe environment for public health; the meeting lasts for 90 minutes and may represent a pivotal shift in the framing of climate change.
Fast forward to June 2, 2014. Patz, now Director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Global Health Institute, is invited to listen live by phone when President Barack Obama announces his historic order to cut coal plant carbon emissions 30 percent by the year 2030. Unlike most Americans hearing the announcement, Patz is not surprised that the President chose a hospital as the venue for this speech. His message from 17 years ago still resonates: Public health is a central concern in the climate change agenda.
“The President’s executive order is a game changer,” says Patz, who is also a professor in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the School of Medicine and Public Health. “It puts a non-voluntary limit on carbon dioxide emissions from our largest emitting sector. It finally places us back on the world stage taking leadership as the world’s number one producer of climate altering pollutants over past decades.
“This helps legitimize our asking countries like China and India to join an endeavor requiring unprecedented international cooperation.”
Patz is a recognized pioneer in the field of climate change and health. In 1994, he organized the first-ever panel session on climate change for the American Association for Public Health (APHA). A year later, he wrote the association’s first policy resolution on the threat climate change poses for public health.
In 2008, he testified before both Houses of Congress (listen here) in support of the pivotal 2009 “Endangerment Finding” of the EPA that recognizes climate change endangers human lives. His scientific articles are among the most cited in the field.
Patz co-chaired the health panel of the first Congressionally mandated U.S. National Assessment on Climate Variability and Change and served as lead author for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
In a brief Q&A, Patz talked about the climate change and health conversation he has helped shape for 20 years.
The effect of climate change on health was considered a marginal issue in the early 1990s, and your supervisors advised against pursuing the topic. What brought you to this issue and how did you help sound the alarm?
I saw climate change as a linchpin preventive medicine issue that included energy policy, pollution, population growth and multi-pathway risks to health. It was barely investigated, so I chased it with fervor.
Why is Obama’s executive order critical in the struggle to maintain public health in the face of climate change?
First, climate change poses enormous risks to our health, from heat waves and floods, to food security, infectious diseases, and social disruption. But a key added bonus is that burning less fossil fuels has immediate health benefits and, in fact, is the focus my own research team has taken.
In the last few weeks, the IPCC and the U.S. National Climate Assessment reports have shown how quickly our climate is changing. The Supreme Court released its ruling that allows the EPA to regulate smog from coal plants, and now, the President has offered the strictest rules, to date, for carbon emissions. How will these events change the conversation?
We’ve come to a point in time—with the resounding confirmation from these assessments —where the overriding scientific results show that climate change is real, it’s human induced and, therefore, human solved. The science is clear, and Obama is doing something about it. I am gratified by the focus on human health in this major step forward.
More and more people realize climate change is not just about polar bears. It’s about people, especially children. The Global Health Institute, supported by public and private contributions, is committed to addressing the root causes of disease, pursuing health today and ensuring health for tomorrow. To learn more or to make a gift, visit ghi.wisc.edu.
By Ann Grauvogl /June 5, 2014