New Book: Climate Information for Public Health Action

by |September 28, 2018

A newly published book called Climate Information for Public Health Action gives the health community a primer on why, when and how climate information can and should be incorporated into health research, policy and practice. Madeleine Thomson, a health expert at IRI and faculty member at the Mailman School of Public Health, and Simon Mason, a senior climate scientist at IRI, edited the new book, available from Routledge Press.

“Climate change is identified as the most pressing concern for human health in the 21st century and climate change mitigation as the greatest public health opportunity of this generation,” writes Elena Manaenkova, the World Meteorological Organization’s Deputy Secretary General, in the book’s foreword. This challenge, she adds, is going to require collaboration and understanding across multiple sectors, not just health.

The new publication helps create a common understanding about the basic concepts and methodologies necessary to apply climate science to public health practice. The timing is especially crucial, as there is a strong and growing interest and demand for climate services by health and other communities, including agriculture and disaster preparedness.

Chapters cover concepts that readers need in order to understand the ways in which climate impacts people’s health, using examples from case studies and primary literature. The book also contains an excellent introduction to climate science and prediction that will be useful to those working inside and outside of the health sector.

A number of IRI scientists contributed to the book, as well as researchers from the Mailman School of Public Health, the Columbia University Medical Center, the UK Met Office, the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health, Princeton University, the WHO–WMO Climate and Health Office, World Bank and Towards A Safer World Network (TASW) for Pandemic Preparedness.

Thomson and Mason will hold a public launch for the book at Columbia University on October 3. The launch will be part of a larger public panel discussion called Climate, Food Systems and Nutrition, which is hosted by IRI, the Institute of Human Nutrition and the Mailman School of Public Health. The events are sponsored by Adapting Agriculture to Climate Today, for Tomorrow (ACToday), part of Columbia World Projects.

In the Q&A below, Thomson and Mason give more details about the book:

Impact pathways on rising CO2 on social, ecological and health outcomes. From Chapter 9, Climate Information for Public Health Action. Routledge, London, UK.

Who is this book intended for, and what’s the motivation behind it?

Madeleine Thomson: The book is aimed at a broad community of health researchers, policy makers, students and practitioners interested in how climate impacts on health issues and how knowledge about the climate may mitigate some of these impacts. We also hope that it will be of interest to members of the climate community interested in working with health specialists on climate-related health outcomes.

Climate variability can impact health outcomes in numerous ways. This book focuses on three areas: infectious disease, hydro-meteorological disasters and nutrition. Why these three areas?

MT: There are many, many ways climate impacts on health. The three areas we chose to focus on relate most closely to core partnerships that we have with the health community at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society. First of all, we are a World Health Organization Collaborating Center (430) on Malaria Early Warning and Other Climate Sensitive Diseases, which means we’ve engaged with many partners around the world in the development of climate information for risk assessment, early warning and evaluation of interventions programs.

We also have a long-standing partnership with the Climate Centre, a technical resource for the Red Crescent/Red Cross movement that helps countries and communities respond to natural disasters.

Finally, we have a new institutional initiative called Adapting Agriculture to Climate Today, for Tomorrow (ACToday), which looks at the opportunity to improve nutrition through the better management of climate risks across agriculture and food systems. However, we expect that much of what we describe in the book is relevant to broader health concerns.

As a climate scientist who has worked with public health professionals, have you found particular challenges that must be addressed when bringing the two communities together?

Simon Mason: It is understandable that public health professionals have less knowledge of the effects of weather and climate on their practice than do agricultural specialists or hydrologists, for example. In general, the climate community is similarly less aware of climate-related public health issues than it is of climate issues in agriculture and hydrology. There are clear, and often major, limitations both with health and with climate data, and it is too easy for inadequate analyses to be conducted and invalid conclusions to be drawn, unless the two communities work in close collaboration. However, that lack of awareness has advantages as well as disadvantages when trying to promote the use of climate information to improve health outcomes. Some of the disadvantages may be obvious, but one advantage is that there is scope to develop good practices together as a joint community.

How can this book help climate experts interested in supporting the needs of experts in public health?

SM: Although the book is targeted primarily at public health professionals, we hope to raise awareness within the climate community of not only the needs of the public health community for climate information, but also some of the limitations of existing climate information.

Relationships between climate, agriculture, economy, nutrition and health in lower-middle-income countries. From Chapter 2, Climate Information for Public Health Action. Routledge, London, UK.

An important message of the book is that there are many ways in which existing information and interests are not lining up as well as they could. For example, the climate community has focused heavily on developing forecasts, whereas there may be great value in developing improved historical and real-time monitoring information and services. Similarly, at least at the seasonal scale in the forecasting community, there has been a primary focus on rainfall, whereas more attention to temperature and humidity might be valuable.

A related message is to encourage the climate community to think about how the information it provides might be better related to impacts. Answering such questions will require sustained joint research in many cases, but there may be some improvements that the climate community could implement without heavy consultation. For example, it would be valuable to provide climate information (whether historical, real-time monitoring, or forecasts and projections) in ways that communicate the frequency and severity of weather events over all time scales. Such a perspective might have important implications for how seasonal and longer-range forecasts and projects are presented, for example. It may also help to inform how the newly emerging subseasonal forecasts are designed. It would be a major lost opportunity if sub-seasonal forecasts were presented in similar formats to the currently prevailing longer-range products, for example.

Are there models/examples of collaborations between the two communities working successfully together?

MT: Yes, this book represents a broader partnership that aims to bridge the health and climate communities. The Joint Office for Climate and Health established by the World Health Organization and the World Meteorological Organization is an example of institutional processes that are bringing these communities together at the level of the United Nations while national climate and health working groups have helped to establish cross-sectoral activities at the national level – for example in Madagascar.

A chapter of the book is dedicated to education and training in health and climate. In what way is Columbia addressing these two areas?

MT: The IRI has promoted cross disciplinary trainings in climate and health since its first workshop on the topic in Mali in 1999. In 2008, we started a summer institute on “Climate Information for Public Health”, which ran for a number of years in New York and was then taken up by its alumni and replicated in a number of countries. We have incorporated much of what we have learned from these training activities into the book.

In addition, the Mailman School of Public Health is leading the charge on educating the next generation of health workers in climate change. As well as running its own climate and health program the school also hosts the knowledge bank for the Global Climate Change and Health Education network – a network of more than 170 health professions schools and programs, including institutions of medicine, nursing, and public health, committed to educating their students on the health impacts of climate change and other planetary health challenges.

SM: The book will also be a valuable resource for the Master of Arts Program in Climate and Society that the IRI helps to support. The climate chapters provide a gentle introduction to the climate dynamics and regional climate components of the course for those students who do not have an environmental science background; the overview and health chapters provide a useful resource for the applications and management and adaptation modules. We are also planning some in-country training activities based on parts of the book for the ACToday project, part of Columbia World Projects. In addition to the book itself, we are also making available color versions of the figures that can be used for training purposes.

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