Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin gave the keynote at the Milken Institute School of Public Health’s second annual Public Health Summit.
By Ruth Steinhardt
Climate change is a public health issue with little time left to reverse course, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told an audience Monday at the George Washington University.
The keynote speaker at the Milken Institute School of Public Health’s second annual Public Health Summit, Mr. Cardin discussed the reality of climate change and the obstacles that stand in the way of effectively addressing it.
“There is not a lot of time left for us to reverse human impact on climate change,” Mr. Cardin said. He cited President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and the recent withdrawal of EPA scientists from a talk on climate change as examples of the way “[American] leadership has been challenged” on the issue.
Mr. Cardin’s address was the first event of the summit, which also featured panels on global girls’ health and on antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.”
“The topics we’ll be discussing affect all of us here and for generations to come,” said Lynn Goldman, the Michael and Lori Milken Dean of Milken Institute SPH
Mr. Cardin said he has seen the effects of climate change firsthand in his home state of Maryland, from the the submerging of small islands in the Chesapeake Bay to increased flooding in the state capital of Annapolis.
One way forward, Mr. Cardin said, could be to reframe the conversation around climate change into one that incorporates issues of public health, economic growth and national security. A clean energy infrastructure would create domestic jobs and would loosen American dependence on fossil fuel-rich foreign interests.
“An energy policy that can help us deal with the realities of climate change as a public health issue will also help us grow our economy and deal with our national security interests,” Mr. Cardin said.
Mr. Cardin also acknowledged the difficulty of focusing on any single issue, even one as important as climate change, in the moment’s crowded news cycle.
“It’s hard to stay focused, because every day there’s another Tweet or another something happens and the subject changes,” Mr. Cardin said. “We have to stay focused on this public health challenge every day. People are with us on this issue. We have to channel that energy into concrete results.”
The keynote led into a panel discussion moderated by School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno. Panelists Sabrina McCormick, associate professor of sociology and of environmental and occupational health at the Milken Institute SPH, and Bob Perkowitz, ecoAmerica founder and president, discussed ways storytelling can help audiences understand and take action against climate change.
Audiences who do not believe they have a personal stake in climate change action often re-evaluate when they learn about ways it could affect their health and the health of their loved ones, Dr. McCormick said.
“When you show them that asthma is going to be exacerbated by climate change, that extreme heat leads to higher death rates, et cetera, they tune in,” she said. “And they tune to those messages a lot more acutely than they do to other kinds of messages.”
Panels later in the afternoon addressed global girls’ health and education, which Dr. Goldman said “can break cycles of poverty and lift entire families out of the cycle of low income, poor health outcomes and other detrimental social and economic factors.”
Moderating the day’s final panel on drug-resistant superbugs, Milken Institute Chair Mike Milken pointed out that overuse of antibiotics may lead back to health outcomes that have been unthinkable for a century.
“One in five Americans lost their life before their fifth birthday at the start of the 20th century,” he said, and major causes of death included infection.
The final panel also included Lance Price, Director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at Milken Institute SPH. Dr. Price’s research is focused on finding solutions to slow the spread of antibiotic resistance.