President Obama launched an initiative Tuesday aimed at highlighting the connections between climate change and public health, bringing both medical and data experts to the White House this week.
As part of the effort, the White House will hold a Climate Change and Health Summit later this spring, featuring Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. The administration is expanding its Climate Data Initiative, which it launched a year ago, to include more than 150 health-relevant data sets.
Speaking to a group at Howard University, which included the school’s College of Medicine dean, Edward E. Cornwell III, and Tyra Bryant-Stephens, who directs the community asthma-prevention program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Obama said that warmer temperatures exacerbate asthma by fueling wildfires that emit fine particles, or soot, into the air, and could shift insect-borne diseases further up into North America.
“And so there are a whole host of public health impacts that are going to hit home,” Obama said. “So we’ve got to do better in protecting vulnerable Americans. Ultimately, though, all of our families are going to be vulnerable. You can’t cordon yourself off from air or from climate.”
Murthy, who attended the event along with Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy, told the group that asthma is “a personal issue for me” because a favorite uncle died from a severe attack.
“And it’s also personal to me because I’ve cared for many patients over the years who have suffered from asthma and have seen firsthand how frightening it can be to suddenly be wheezing and fighting for every breath,” he said. “Asthma can be very difficult for patients, but also for their families. And the impacts of climate change could make this situation worse.”
There was also a clear political component to Tuesday’s announcement. In a roundtable event at Howard University, Obama met not only with public experts and senior administration officials but also with Eneshal Miller, the mother of a child suffering from asthma. White House senior adviser Brian Deese cited a recent study by the American Thoracic Society finding that 7 out of 10 doctors reported climate change is contributing to more health problems among their patients.
“One thing that we know is the most salient arguments around climate change are the ones around health impacts and involve meeting people where they are,” Deese said in a phone call with reporters Tuesday.
As part of that effort, the interagency U.S. Global Change Research Program is releasing a draft Climate and Health Assessment report that will detail how public health is influenced by changes in weather extremes, air quality and vector-borne diseases.
Janice Nolen, assistant vice president for national policy at the American Lung Association, noted that studies have found that higher temperatures will exacerbate the formation of ozone, a critical ingredient in smog, in the Northeast and Midwest.
“It’s going to be even more difficult to reduce it with warmer temperatures,” Nolen said of ozone. “It’s like fighting an uphill battle, where it’s going to grow while you’re trying to shut it down. That’s a huge trigger for asthma attacks as well as premature deaths.”
The new initiative will also call on private-sector firms to devise solutions to health-related climate problems. Microsoft researcher Ethan Jackson told reporters that his company is launching a pilot program to see whether it can use autonomous equipment to monitor the density of mosquitoes in a given areas as a way of detecting a potential disease outbreak before it happens.
Jackson noted that there is clear evidence that climate change contributes to “the movement of pathogens and vector-borne diseases. But it is still difficult to predict the time and place where disease will occur.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will also release an “Adaptation in Action Report” on Tuesday to highlight actions that state and local leaders have taken to minimize the health impacts of global warming in New York, San Francisco, Maine, Minnesota, Arizona, Michigan, California and New York state.
A coalition of deans from 30 medical, public health and nursing schools also pledged Tuesday to train their students to address climate change’s health effects. Those universities include Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland, Harvard University and the University of Nebraska.