EOH Faculty Recommend Research to Support U.S. Climate Change Impact Study

The impacts of heat waves and other extreme weather linked to global climate change pose challenges to citizens, scientists and policymakers alike. Both Professor Jerome Paulson and Associate Professor Sabrina McCormick participated in a recent panel discussion on how to evaluate observed and projected impacts on human health to inform the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s plan for assessing these effects. 

The research plan is part of The President’s Climate Action Plan, and it will be used to create an Interagency Special Report which is intended to summarize the current state of the science. McCormick and Paulson were invited to participate in the panel discussion, which was held in mid-March, by the three agencies coordinating the report, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

McCormick recently served as a lead author on the Special Assessment of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; her contribution is Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation. She is currently working on a project that she believes will help close some of the research gaps which obfuscate our understanding of climate change’s impact on human health. Paulson’s research on the topic includes a 2010 article in Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care which pointed out that many of the major diseases affecting children are climate-sensitive. 

McCormick’s recommendations for the Interagency Special Report emphasized the need to accurately assess heat deaths. She also stressed the importance of thinking about vulnerable communities creatively to incorporate how social factors relate to adaptive capacity. And she recommended that the overall report be framed with approaches to remedy climate health impacts, particularly adaptation and mitigation measures.

“The report needs to make sure to address the issue of under-estimation of heat mortality and morbidity,” stressed McCormick, who participated in the Interagency Special Report panel online because she was traveling. How heat deaths are identified is complicated and very important because it “entirely shapes the estimates we have of heat deaths, at least those that aren’t modeled but based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vital statistics,” she explained. In addition to pointing the Special Report’s authors to literature on this issue, she stressed the opportunity for capitalizing on the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report on forensic science. “We can suggest that heat mortality identification needs training and standardization,” she said.

McCormick highlighted the importance of thinking creatively about vulnerable communities in heat events by including considerations about the homeless, workers and athletes, as well as environmental justice concerns. Extreme heat can have disproportionate effects in cities and can affect otherwise healthy people. She recommended that scientists find ways to identify what kinds of community-level characteristics, including social capital and social networks as well as socioeconomic status, will shape health outcomes in response to heat and other extreme events. She acknowledged that the impacts such characteristics could have on health outcomes would be difficult to quantify, but noted that it could provide some guidelines for preparedness. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Assessment on Extreme Events report describes how such things can affect one another in relation to extreme climate events, she said.

Collecting data on how community-level characteristics affect adaptation and mitigation is also important, McCormick stressed. “Many of the same community characteristics that shape community-level health outcomes are likely to both affect capacity for adaptation and mitigation,” she said. She also urged the report’s authors to include information about what can be done to mitigate climate impacts on health, noting the literature on adaptation and localized work, much of which is international in nature. McCormick recommended “extrapolating from that – and reviewing the literature on co-benefits and mitigation measures that can be a part of public health planning.” The literature shows that measures taken in support of adaptation and mitigation can have co-benefits, she pointed out.

McCormick’s current projects include a study that will collect heat mortality data in New York City this summer. She is conducting the project with graduate student Emma Zinsmeister.