“Climate Change is the biggest public health challenge of our lives…even though we’re in the middle of a pandemic. This will be with us the rest of my natural life, whether I live one more day or 35 more years. It will pass on to my children, who will have to address this largely human-caused change in our environment.”Dr. Paul Erwin, UAB, Dean of School of Public Health
As a medical and public health professional for nearly four decades, Dr. Erwin doesn’t mince words. He is sounding the alarm about the impact of climate change on our health, Alabama’s economy and your family. But will we listen? UAB has.
Because of Dr. Erwin’s efforts, since he became Dean in 2018, UAB has begun what they call a “cluster hire”—the addition of five to six researchers/professors, including senior leadership. This new multidisciplinary unit of dedicated experts will focus on climate change and health within the School of Public Health. It’s a game-changer.
This is our first installment in a three-part series about climate change in Alabama.
The topic today? Health.
Climate Change and Your Wellbeing
Catherine Flowers, an Alabamian, 2020 MacArthur Fellow and author of the highly acclaimed book “Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret” is ecstatic about UAB’s work to connect climate change with people’s health.
“After just returning from COP 26 (the recent global climate change summit) in Glasgow, Scotland, I am happy to see the UAB School of Public Health recognize the threat that climate change is to our health, wellbeing and quite frankly our children’s future,” she said. “This positions UAB to be a leader not just in Alabama but in the South as we address the challenges of this existential crisis. I welcome the opportunity to work with them on saving our planet, our state and our children’s future.”
The New Group
How will this new group at UAB work?
They are bringing onboard faculty who have a common interest in the impacts of climate change on human health while also having a faculty home in one of the five traditional departments in the school of public health.
In a recent ZOOM interview with Dr. Erwin, and Dr. Jeff Wickliffe, Chair of UAB’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences, both described how it will work.
“One of the five departments in the school is epidemiology,” said Erwin in his role as Dean. “One of our strengths is in cardiovascular epidemiology. So, when we are hiring new faculty, we look for someone whose research deals with the impacts of extreme heat on the cardiovascular system.”
Dr. Wickliffe, who was hired by Erwin, chimed in connecting the dots between a changing climate and health.
“Because of climate change, we’re going to see longer periods of time at high temperatures. As a result, anybody that works outdoors — from landscape folks to construction workers to road crews to farmers to foresters — they’re going to be experiencing more days of heat exposure, more days of dehydration.”
According to Wickliffe, as a result, scientists are seeing dramatic increases in kidney disease and cardiovascular disease that are related to more intense exposure to higher heat, and other complications from dehydration.
The job of the cardiovascular epidemiologist is to research and identify the problem and develop strategies that will keep outdoor workers (you can add people who recreate too) healthy and safe in the midst of a changing climate.
Additional Examples – Heat Islands, Mosquitoes, Ticks
Other areas where climate and public health connect?
Helping poor and vulnerable populations mitigate the negative health impacts of urban heat islands brought on by climate change.
Or, how about mosquitoes and ticks, and their ever-expanding range caused by a world that is warming dramatically.
“I have to mention the expanding range of vector borne diseases and illnesses,” Dr. Erwin added. “When mosquitoes and ticks are able to over-winter at higher and higher latitudes, it extends the period of transmission potential and extends the range of those vectors and the impact of those diseases. Lyme disease has really been expanding. It has expanded well up into Canada now.”
Lyme disease is not the only vector disease on the move— others include Dengue fever and Zika.
It’s a public health concern, both Erwin and Wickliffe agreed.
Let’s not forget the extreme weather we have been experiencing here in Alabama. Yes, you can’t pin it all on climate change, but over the last few years the Birmingham area has seen some once-in-a-lifetime weather events.
- Historic drought in 2016
- Wettest summer ever in 2017
- Wettest January and February ever in 2020
- 2nd Hottest September in 2019
- Double-digit inches rainfall flash flood event in Pelham and Hoover that was NOT part of a hurricane system
Catherine Flowers added this about tornadoes,
“Tornadoes have increased in intensity and frequency and destruction to the point that most of the state lies in the region called Dixie Alley. Consistently the state has ranked among having the highest number of deaths from tornadoes in the nation. We have to build resilience infrastructure and systems to protect the public health and prevent untimely death.”
Tackling Climate Change By Taking Care of Each Other
Ranked as one of the top Public Health Schools in the nation, UAB is ready to tackle the biggest challenge facing our community, state and the world.
In Alabama there are doubters about climate change. Dr. Wickliffe has a response.
“Whether you think there’s a problem with the climate or not —air pollution is a problem with or without climate change,” he explained. “Air pollution affects people’s health — so we should try to get ourselves to move towards producing energy in a way that doesn’t generate as much air pollution or even water pollution. There’s a lot of things that would help in this whole climate change and health space, that we really should be working on, irrespective of the whole climate change and health argument.”
Dr. Erwin summed up why UAB is making climate and health a priority for the School of Public Health.
“I’m an optimistic kind of person. This problem didn’t happen overnight. But we have the wherewithal to get us out of this. There are useful and adaptable strategies that we can use to collectively make a difference and I still want to believe collectively, we actually care about each other.”
On the heels of COP26, one of the largest and most significant global climate change summits in history, we will examine the impacts of climate change in Alabama on people’s health, the local economy, life-saving research and our natural resources. Moreover, we will explore solutions, initiatives and ways people can individually do their part to mitigate and help solve the climate crisis.