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National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

Your Environment. Your Health.

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National Meetings Focus on the Importance of Addressing Climate Change

A city showing the effect of climate change

October proved to be an eventful month for climate change and health on the national and international stages. The National Academy of Medicine (NAM) and the U.S. Global Change Research Program (GCRP) each held their Annual Meetings focusing on the health aspects of climate change. And the Wellcome Trust, the world’s second largest funder of global health research and programming, in announcing a major strategic reorganization, identified climate change as one of just three “schemes”, or targeted areas of funding, for the next several decades.

On October 19, 2020, NAM hosted its annual Scientific Conference “Confronting Urgent Threats to Human Health & Society: COVID-19 and Climate Change”, celebrating its 50th anniversary. This was the first time NAM positioned climate change at the forefront of its daylong meeting. Several notable keynote speakers shared their remarks on the urgent threats that humans are currently facing.

Bill Gates, Co-Chair of the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation, speaking on Crises, Fast and Slow, commented on the similarities and intersection between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change in terms of the toll on human health and planning, research, and global action to combat the problems. “COVID-19 has exposed incredible gaps in our preparedness and our health system . . . COVID-19 is also teaching us about our other great crisis of our time, climate change,” he stated, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic as the “fast” crisis spreading globally in a short period of time, and climate change as the “slow” crisis occurring over decades.

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, M.D., kicked off a session moderated by Sanjay Gupta, M.D., FACS, with a presentation on the state of the COVID-19 pandemic, delving into global trends, comparing trends in the U.S, describing patterns of transmission and risk of severe disease, and concluding with therapeutics and vaccines.

Sir Andrew Haines, M.D., of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine discussed the Imperative of Climate Action to Protect Health to begin the afternoon session. Beyond adapting to the effects of climate change, he emphasized the advantages of co-benefits of mitigation strategies such as a more sustainable diet. “If we can decarbonize the economy rapidly, we can both prevent dangerous climate change but also reap the benefits of reduced exposure to ambient air pollution,” he cited as another example.

Ursula von der Leyen, M.D., President of the European Commission emphasized the global nature of health, “What happens in one part of the world can have a deadly or devastating impact on the health of communities on the other side of the globe, so there is no such thing as out of sight out of mind in today’s world.”

NIEHS GEH program director John Balbus, M.D., served on the planning committee for the NAM annual meeting and scientific conference.

On the same day as the NAM Annual Scientific Conference, the Wellcome Trust announced a substantial reorganization of its funding schemes. In addition to supporting a broad range of discovery research through investigator-initiated proposals, the Trust identified three global health challenges for targeted funding: mental health, infectious diseases, and global heating. Details of the global heating strategy are set to be released in coming months, as the funding schemes anticipate announcing new requests for applications in the summer of 2021.

On October 21 and 22, the GCRP Annual Meeting brought together participants from across 13 member agencies for presentations and breakout sessions aimed at fostering discussion on the three focus areas of health, coasts, and water cycle and shaping future directions of work.

NIEHS Senior Public Health Advisor Balbus, who serves as HHS Principal on the Subcommittee for Global Change Research, provided an overview and update on the health focus area plan. Along with his co-chairs of the Interagency Cross-cutting Group on Climate Change and Human Health (CCHHG), Juli Trtanj of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Paul Schramm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he also helped moderate a set of breakout sessions to identify areas of collaboration with other workgroups and focus areas.

Interagency workgroups on adaptation and resilience, integrative modelling, integrated earth observations, indicators, international activities, social science, sustained assessment, and carbon cycle also presented their progress to date and promoted opportunities for enhanced collaboration across disciplines. Collaboration across the GCRP, especially the identification of opportunities for potential collaboration on health priorities in other focus areas and workgroups, was a key message throughout the Annual Meeting and an important goal moving forward.