National Public Health Week: Climate Change

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As you read this, there is a 600-meter long contraption of PVC piping and woven polyurethane floating around the Pacific Ocean, named “Wilson”. Wilson’s job? Clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area of ocean twice the size of Texas, with 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic floating in it. Wilson was conceptualized by a 16-year-old Dutch high school student back in 2013, and after years of research, testing, and modifications, the first system was deployed into the ocean in 2018. Some scientists speculate that the amount of trash the system can pick up will hardly have a dent on the overall ocean pollution problem, while others have expressed concern about potential impacts on bacterial marine life. The response to these critiques has been two-fold: yes, these are accurate concerns that need to be examined and addressed, but we should still encourage people to generate innovative ideas like this – otherwise we might end up with no solutions at all.

The same approach needs to be taken with climate change. With half of the Great Barrier Reef dead from mass coral bleaching due to climate change, government officials pondering if the catastrophic flooding Cyclone Idai caused was compounded by climate change, and the report issued by the IPCC in 2018 warning the world has 12 years before a crisis, we need more Wilson-esque ideas, along with rigorous research, testing, and evaluation.

The chart below depicts regions of the world with the most frequent searches for “climate change” since 2014. The chart shows that proportionally, ** most searches were from Fiji. Fiji is a small island nation that experiences extreme flooding due to climate change-induced sea level rise, despite being a country that has a practically non-existent carbon-emissions footprint. Fiji emitted 1.3 MtCO2 in 2017, while the US emitted 5270 MtCO2 in 2017. In this way, the effects of climate change mimic Public Health problems– usually the people most affected by systematically perpetuated problems are the ones who had the least hand in setting up the system.

*Google Trend data for “climate change” from 2014-03/25-2019

** Values are calculated on a scale from 0 to 100, where 100 is the location with the most popularity as a fraction of total searches in that location, a value of 50 indicates a location which is half as popular. A value of 0 indicates a location where there was not enough data for this term.

Note: A higher value means a higher proportion of all queries, not a higher absolute query count. So a tiny country where 80% of the queries are for “bananas” will get twice the score of a giant country where only 40% of the queries are for “bananas”.

Possibly the most wonderful and frustrating truth about climate change is that there are solutions, if only we as a global community can agree to implement them. Scientific projections have repeatedly shown that if countries were to cut or eliminate their reliance on fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas), stop deforestation, and adopt other measures, the yearly increase in global temperatures could be contained. The catch is that the solutions are not easy ones, and require sacrifices on many people’s parts, in both the large arenas (how governments make profits and fuel their economies), to the smaller hour-to-hour choices (what type of food people buy in the grocery store).

We know change is not impossible though, and can start “small”. Transportation is the second leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, but with proper infrastructure and an environmentally conscious social culture, this does not have to be the case. In Copenhagen, 3-lane wide bicycle paths are common, enabling 43% of commuters to bike to work. Copenhagen has the advantage of being a wealthy nation with a culture concerned about climate change, both of which allow the funneling of resources towards solutions.

Climate change and public health are deeply intertwined when considering topics such as waterborne diseases to resilient communities to food sustainability. The biggest overlap is that as with solutions to climate change, the same is true for public health—the solutions to our problems are attainable.  When a hospital, community, or health department comes to ICH with a problem, we examine the issue closely, focusing on the manageable parts to create a foundation for change and improvement. At ICH, we admire the spirit behind Wilson, because we have seen time and time again that solutions to problems do not have to be complex or flashy – but they do have to be created, put into action, and evaluated now.

Megan Hatch, MPH

Research Associate/Epidemiologist