SPH will host symposium with nationally recognized experts

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Climate change has been a front-page staple for months, afforded former Vice President Al Gore rock star status, united and divided scientists worldwide and made governments at the very least sit up and take notice.

Due to this convergence of factors and the magnitude of climate change’s implications on humankind, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health will place the subject front and center for The Heat Is Rising, a full-day symposium to be held on Friday, April 6, in the school’s Sheldon Hall. The event, subtitled “What you need to know about climate change and public health,” will bring together Johns Hopkins researchers and nationally recognized experts on the topic.

Brian Schwartz, professor in the Division of Occupational and Environmental Health and one of the event’s speakers and organizers, said that, without doubt, the time is right for an event like this. The challenges associated with climate change have existed for decades, Schwartz said, but what is different now is that people are paying attention.

He pointed to the success, both critical and commercial, of the Oscar-winning documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, and the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which released a summary report in January that notably reported that human activities are very likely (greater than 90 percent) causing global warming and that average temperatures would probably rise between 3.2 and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. The IPCC was formed by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program in 1988 to assess the risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation.

“The concerns have always been there, but there is an increasing priority given to them now,” Schwartz said. “People in general seem willing to do something about it. As political leadership is lagging, we hope that individual and grass-roots efforts will take the lead and motivate politicians to actions.”

Climate change refers to any significant change in measures of climate — such as temperature, precipitation or wind — lasting for an extended period, meaning decades or longer. Changes may result from natural factors (such as variation in the sun’s intensity), natural processes within the climate system (changes in ocean circulation) or human activities that change the atmosphere’s composition (by burning fossil fuels) or the land’s surface (deforestation).

Since late in the 18th century, scientists say, human activities associated with the Industrial Revolution have changed the composition of the atmosphere and influenced the Earth’s climate in significant and negative ways. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA data, the Earth’s average surface temperature has increased since 1900 by about 1.2 to 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

The symposium’s main goal is to shine some light on the relationships between climate change and health, and the science supporting those relationships. Specific topics to be addressed include how air pollution plus heat impacts respiratory and cardiovascular health outcomes, the escalation in the number of heat-stress cases and how climate change affects the spread of vector-borne diseases, such as malaria and Lyme disease.

The speakers will also discuss the potential catastrophic events associated with climate change, including the rising of sea levels, mass extinction of animal species and regional climate change. Some scientists predict that sea levels could rise by as much as 20 to 30 feet in the not-so-distant future, an occurrence that would result in the displacement of millions of coastal inhabitants, leading to social upheaval and the spread of disease.

The symposium also will provide a range of solutions, from individual behavior changes to global policies, to stabilize the climate. The solutions will focus primarily on how to decrease carbon emissions, which have been linked to the “greenhouse effect.”

“The challenges we face are really quite huge. One change is not going to solve our problems,” said Schwartz, who co-authored a paper, published in the December 2006 edition of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, on the needed public health response to global environmental change. “We need to take many steps at the same time. Individuals need to do their part and examine behaviors that result in large carbon emissions, whether it be buying a hybrid car or purchasing wind-generated energy from local utilities, and national and local governments need to pursue policy changes, which will likely require a new infrastructure for energy production and supply.”

The symposium is co-sponsored by the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health Preparedness, the Center for a Livable Future and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ Center in Urban Environmental Health.

Jim Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies since 1981, will deliver the keynote address. Hansen, widely regarded as the government’s top climate change scientist, has spent the past two decades, sometimes in the face of great resistance, trying to educate the public about the consequences of unchecked global warming.

The event will be broken into six sessions: “The Basics of Climate Change,” “Health Impacts of Climate Change,” “Infectious Disease Risk,” “Adaptation vs. Mitigation,” “Solutions for Adaptation and Mitigation” and a panel discussion moderated by WYPR founder and on-air personality Marc Steiner. The panel discussion will tackle such questions as, How can a community or region be better prepared for climate change and climate-related disasters?

In addition to Hansen and Schwartz, the list of presenters includes Jonathan Patz, former School of Public Health faculty member, now with the University of Wisconsin, Madison; Kent Bransford, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility; and current School of Public Health faculty members Cindy Parker and John Balbus. Balbus is also the director of the Environmental Health Program for Environmental Defense.

For more information and to register for the event, go to: www.jhsph.edu/preparedness. The symposium is free for Johns Hopkins students with valid ID; $15 for all others.

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