By Maria Saporta
Atlanta’s significant role as a center for global health is now well-recognized and appreciated.
But last week, when the Atlanta-based Carter Center hosted the Climate & Health Meeting, it became apparent that our region’s contributions to improving global health must now take into account the growing challenges of climate change.
And Atlanta has an opportunity to become a nexus for expert knowledge and action to address how climate change will impact global health.
First and foremost, we are the home of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – the only federal agency based outside of Washington, D.C.
In fact, the CDC originally had been the convener of the Climate & Health Meeting – an issue former Vice President Al Gore addressed in his opening comments.
“Too little attention has been paid by many of the health consequences of the climate crisis,” Gore said explaining the need for the meeting. “The way this came about is last fall the CDC asked me to give the opening comments. For reasons we don’t need to go into, it was abruptly cancelled.”
The Carter Center, one of Atlanta’s global health anchors, agreed to step up and host what had originally been planned as a three-day meeting into a one-day session.
But as fate would have it, later this year Atlanta will host the annual conference of the American Public Health Association from Nov. 4 to Nov. 8. The theme will be “Climate Change and Health,” and more than 12,000 people are expected to come to Atlanta to continue the conversation, according to Dr. George Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.
Ashish Jha, director of Harvard University’s Global Health Institute, brought the point home about how increased drought will lead to food instability, hotter temperatures will increase pollution, and extreme weather events will cause more diseases and emergencies.
“Walls will not keep these pathogens out.,” Jha said. “No borders will protect us. Health is the human face of climate change.”
Experts said climate change could cause increased water-borne diseases, prolonged drought, more wildfires, increased pollution, water scarcity and food instability also can cause political instability, which the world has witnessed in Syria, to name one recent crisis.
“The refugee crisis could of course become significantly worse,” Gore said.
Fortunately the CDC’s Climate and Health Program has been working with local communities on ways to help address the issues that might emerge.
Given the political climate in Washington, D.C., there was concern during last week’s meeting in Atlanta about whether CDC will have the independence to continue to address the health consequences of climate change.
“The CDC is the nation’s health department, and every citizen has to have a stake in it doing its job,” said Dr. Howard Frumkin, formerly with the CDC and now a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Climate change is a huge health challenge. No one can predict what this administration is going to do. We have to hope the CDC will be able to continue to do its job. I hope for the best. It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen, but the work has to go on either within or without the CDC.”
Fortunately, the Atlanta region has a multi-pronged global health community. In addition to the CDC and the Carter Center, there is the Task Force for Global Health, Emory University and the Rollins School of Public Health, the CDC Foundation, CARE, MedShare, MAP International and Morehouse School of Medicine – to name a few.
Atlanta also has several other organizations – corporate and nonprofit – that are vested in global health and development. They include Habitat International, the Coca-Cola Co., UPS, Delta Air Lines, CNN, the Weather Channel and entities that work with refugee populations.
Atlanta also has nonprofits and foundations specializing in solutions – from water conservation, clean energy to green buildings. They include Southface, the Kendeda Fund and the Turner Foundation, to name a few.
Lastly, Atlanta is the headquarters of the Southern Co., one of the largest utilities in the country, which is becoming a more active player in renewable energy, such as solar and wind.
Stephanie Stuckey, the chief resilience officer for the city of Atlanta, said that by 2050, cities will have 70 percent of the world’s population (in 2007, half of the world’s population was living in cities).
“Cities are where hope meets the streets,” Stuckey said – highlighting how Atlanta is responding to the challenges of health and climate change. “All of this is happening in the deep South. With the power of local leadership, you can make change happen. Atlanta is the nexus of public health and climate change.”
At the end of the all-day meeting, Gore said the health issues related to climate change offer a way for the public to better understand what’s at stake. And the former vice president praised the CDC for its work. He also said that the CDC may reschedule its cancelled climate change and health conference for later this year.
“We have to win this,” Gore said. “We have no choice.”
Atlanta has a choice.
We can leverage all the assets in our region to work on ways to reduce the adverse effects of climate change while improving public health around the world.