Climate Change Is Focus of 2021 SPH Annual Bicknell Lecture
Panel of leading experts will weigh in at Wednesday’s virtual event
The deadly winter storm that killed at least 75 people and left millions without power and clean water in Texas last month was deemed by federal energy officials as a “wake-up call” for the United States to build resilient infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather linked to climate change.
Following a decade of record-high temperatures and worsening hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts, the Texas storm is one more example of the threat that climate change poses to human health—and that the global conversation on addressing this issue needs to move beyond “if” and “when” to “how.”
The actions that communities can take to avoid the worst impacts of climate change will be the subject of the School of Public Health’s annual Bicknell Lecture tomorrow, Wednesday, March 17. Titled Tackling Climate Change: Mitigation or Adaptation? it will explore the current and future threats of climate change and how communities around the world can productively address this global challenge.
The virtual lecture, free and open to all members of the BU community, will be held on Zoom from 4:30 to 6 pm.
Endowed by the late William J. Bicknell, founder of the SPH department of international health, now the global health department, this year’s program will feature a panel of climate experts from across academia, government, and the private sector. The speakers are Rachel Kyte, dean of the Tufts University Fletcher School; Marshall Shepherd, the University of Georgia Georgia Athletic Association Distinguished Professor of Geography and Atmospheric Sciences; Anne Simpson, CalPERS (California Public Employees’ Retirement System) managing investment director of board governance and sustainability; and Madeleine Thomson, Wellcome Trust Our Planet, Our Health program interim head. The discussion will be moderated by Gregory Wellenius, an SPH professor of environmental health and director of the SPH Program on Climate and Health.
Ahead of the event, Kyte, Shepherd, and Thomson spoke further about the current challenges of climate change and how to spur action at the individual, national, and global levels.
Inequities remain at the heart of climate change, Kyte says. “The countries that did not cause the problems are the countries that are most impacted,” she says, and it is the collective responsibility of nations to build equity into programs of support and delivery in climate action.
“One of the things that the pandemic has done is penetrate our consciousness again that sometimes, to do the thing that you need to protect yourself means that you have to do something to protect somebody else,” Kyte says. “You can’t self-isolate from the impacts of climate change. Sometimes, the most effective thing to do is to help another country meet its emissions target or turn the corner in green energy supply.”
With Madeleine Thomson, Rachel Kyte, and Marshall Shepherd
BU Today: Why is it important to tackle climate change through a health lens?
Madeleine Thomson: First, in some areas of climate change mitigation we see what is called a “green premium.” Governments may need to cover this premium, but can recoup the funding (and more) through health co-benefits. Second, we know that direct impacts of climate on health are significant today and will increase over time. Third, the health community is widely considered to be a trusted voice by the general public. They’ve become an increasingly important voice on clear messaging on climate change and the need for climate action.
BU Today: How do we encourage action at the government or individual level?
Rachel Kyte: People will respond if they believe that their ability to protect their family is at risk. The entry point to the mobilization of public opinion is: where does climate change hit you? It hits you if you can’t protect your crops, if you can’t protect your kids, if you can’t protect yourself, and you can’t protect your food.
Additionally, we know that the cost of inaction is much, much higher than the cost of action. Is it worth the investment in the ability of countries to continue to grow cleanly, take care of their growing populations, and take care of the needs that those populations have? It is a geostrategic question of how you maintain and build peace, because peace is better and cheaper in the long run.
Marshall Shepherd: We need engagement from Fortune 500 companies, from faith-based organizations, the military, and so forth. When you start getting those types of stakeholders engaged on climate change, you blow up the false narrative that “Climate change is a liberal issue and not a conservative issue.” It’s apolitical, the ice doesn’t care, it just melts. It doesn’t care if you’re red or blue. When we start to see these types of broad-based coalitions, that’s a positive.
BU Today: What is the biggest challenge you see going forward in combating climate change?
Shepherd: We will have to move to a different energy economy. We have to move from a fossil fuel–based economy to a renewable energy–based economy, or a different set of energy considerations. That is going to be hard. Rallying around an acceptable policy lever that everyone can agree on is difficult.
Kyte: The big one is money and politics in the United States. The two enemies to urgent action in climate change are incumbency and inertia. The transitions we need are slowed down and made less likely by the ability of incumbents to slow the process down and by the inertia of a political system that doesn’t understand that urgency. We are not going to build that world until we wrestle the oil-soaked money out of policies.
Thomson: If there is anything that we can learn from COVID, it is the importance of acting when you need to act. I hope that is something that we can build on in the public discussion about climate. It makes a huge difference if we act today versus acting in five years.
BU Today: What is one thing you think the general public does not fully understand in relation to climate and climate change?
Shepherd: The thing that most people do not get is how influential climate change is in our lives right now. These are things that are happening right now.
Kyte: When people think about climate change, they think about hurricanes, fires, floods, and extreme events. The mental health impacts and the more dispersed public health impacts are just as deleterious as the loss of life because of a fire or a flood. Additionally, the healthcare system needs to be built to support communities to be able to maintain their health. We have to have a health system which is fit for the crises of climate change and not be part of the problem.
Thomson: What is our priority? People that you care about, including yourself, will be badly impacted by climate change, and you have an opportunity to act now. Let’s take that opportunity.
The School of Public Health 2021 Bicknell Lecture, Tackling Climate Change: Mitigation or Adaptation? is Wednesday, March 17, from 4:30 to 6 pm, on Zoom. The event is free and open to the public. Find more information and register here.