Dr. John Balbus
Photo: Steve McCaw
NIEHS senior advisor for public health Dr. John Balbus was on hand for the latest U.N. Climate Change Conference held recently in Durban, South Africa, as a representative of the Department
of Health and Human Services. While delegates
struggled with forging international agreement
on how to stem climate change, Balbus and other public health experts worked on ways to better prepare their countries for the anticipated health effects of climate change, now and in the immediate future.
Balbus participated as a panelist in the event “U.S. Federal Actions for a Climate Resilient Nation,” which highlighted executive branch and private sector actions on climate change. He also organized and led a panel discussion on “Saving Lives—Advances in Health Adaptation for Climate Change,” featuring initiatives in the U.S. and Africa to better anticipate the health impacts of weather events, identify susceptible populations and integrate awareness of climate change across governmental and professional sectors.
Balbus noted the record number of billion-dollar weather-related disasters that occurred in the U.S. during 2011, along with near-record levels of summer dryness and rainfall. While all of the events cannot be directly linked to climate change, he explained that the record level of weather stress reinforces the message that climate change has serious implications for human health. The 12 disasters in 2011 caused some 1,000 deaths in the U.S., as well as numerous injuries. Disaster response and all-hazards risk reduction are just two components of public health that are becoming increasingly of interest in preparing for the effects of climate disruption.
“The climate change and public health community has really started emerging,” Balbus said. “It’s becoming clear to more and more people that many of the measures we need to undertake actually improve health, with economic benefits that can offset the cost of climate change mitigation.”
Balbus pointed to the upsurge in federal climate change and health efforts such as the interagency climate change and human health group co-chaired by NIEHS and workshops convened by the White House on the health implications of climate change adaptation measures in other sectors. A new National Climate Assessment, now under way and due for completion in 2013, as well as climate adaptation planning within HHS, will improve understanding of climate change health impacts across the U.S., he added.
Nine new NIH grants administered by NIEHS are supporting research on vulnerability to health effects of climate change, the effectiveness of interventions and the health implications of climate change adaptation measures.—Eddy Ball