By Kristen Mitchell
The George Washington University has launched a new institute aimed at studying the impacts of climate change on human health, translating research into policy to create a more equitable and safe future.
Climate change is positioned to have significant impacts on the health of Earth’s population over the next century. Even so, Susan Anenberg, director of the GW Climate and Health Institute (CHI), and associate professor of environmental and occupational health and of global health at the GW Milken Institute School of Public Health, said the health implications of climate change and the resulting dramatic health inequities have not been widely recognized within the climate science, policy and health communities.
“We have discussions about the impacts of climate change from melting glaciers and changes in extreme weather events,” she said. “It is rare that the conversation goes all the way toward the health damages that result from the heat waves that people will experience, the health system breakdowns during extreme weather events, and the increased habitat suitability for infectious disease agents like ticks, mosquitoes and bacteria.”
The institute aims to fill existing gaps in the discourse by bringing a health and equity lens to the climate change conversation through research, teaching and advancing policy. CHI brings together experts in air pollution, extreme weather and ecosystem changes, occupational health, social movements, climate litigation, food systems, mental health, risk assessment, environmental justice, the Arctic and more.
“The Climate and Health Institute brings together scientists and other public health experts to understand and address the human health dimensions of climate change,” said Lynn Goldman, dean of the GW Milken Institute School of Public Health. “We know from our work on mortality in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria that our health system is not yet accounting for the full health consequences of climate-related health threats, and is not taking steps to protect people who are in harm's way.”
We are not doing enough to prevent climate change by reducing emissions that are harmful to the environment and to health, globally, Dr. Goldman said. GW seeks to prevent climate threats “by bringing together world-class researchers across a number of disciplines to better inform policies and practices, and, importantly, to train the next generation of leaders poised to take action on this critical public health problem."
The university is well positioned to make significant contributions to research and policy action on climate and health. For many years, GW faculty have been involved in pockets of research across a wide range of disciplines focused on how the changing climate affects human health. The institute brings together faculty from 10 of GW’s schools and colleges under one umbrella to collaborate and “spark new innovative ideas that wouldn't have come up in isolation,” Dr. Anenberg said.
In 2019, Dr. Anenberg, Hana Akselrod, assistant professor in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), and several other professors put together a proposal for a Cross-Disciplinary Research Fund, an internal funding award to support collaborative research partnerships between researchers across diverse disciplines. They received funding to launch the Climate and Health Research Network before establishing the CHI as a chartered institute this semester.
Cross-disciplinary collaborations are necessary to tackle the complex challenges that will need to be solved in the next several decades, Dr. Anenberg said. The CHI will strengthen ties among GW researchers in the climate and health space, positioning them to be ready to pursue research opportunities as they arise.
“This was really a topic that GW is well placed to advance, given the breadth of research that we already had going on, and also our engagement with the policy community in D.C. and then more broadly, globally,” Dr. Anenberg said.
The institute is looking for collaborators and partners who can work with them to advance their research mission and vision, Dr. Anenberg said. GW faculty work closely with stakeholders across the science policy spectrum. Faculty are working closely with D.C. environment, health, and sustainability agencies to advance climate and air quality policy, work on urban climate action planning with a global network of mayors committed to decarbonization at the local level, and recently participated in the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
“GW's special position at this intersection between science and policy is that we work directly with stakeholders and enable policy development that wouldn’t be possible without our engagement,” Dr. Anenberg said.
In addition to the research and policy work, the institute is focused on educating the next generation of leaders in the climate and health space. Milken Institute SPH plans to launch an online master’s of public health in climate and health, building on existing public health courses offered on the subject.