Madison to Paris: Connecting Climate Change and Health

By Janette Rosenbaum — At the Conference of Parties to be held in Paris next month, about half of the 50,000 attendees will be official delegates of governments and corporations. Some of the rest will be ordinary people from Madison.

Maybe it’s a stretch to describe Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as ordinary. As we sat in his office — which features a standing desk and bike helmets for lending to visitors who arrive via B-cycle — he told me that he was the first to draw the connection between climate change and health. 

“I organized the first-ever session on climate change at one of [the American Public Health Association’s] annual conferences,” Patz said. That was in 1994, when most people weren’t thinking about climate change in any context. Earlier this month Patz received the APHA’s Homer Calver Award, for his pioneering vision of framing climate change as a health issue. 

The connection may seem obvious now, but it wasn’t 20 years ago. In a 1989 government document on the topic of climate change, Patz told me, “the only mention of health was concern over shortages of deodorant.” Nor was the link immediately popular. “In 1996 I wrote a paper in [the Journal of the American Medical Association],” Patz recalled, “and was attacked by Fred Singer”, a major climate change denier. 

Today things are different. The theme of APHA’s 2017 conference will be climate change, and a few minutes into our conversation Patz warned me he would need to cut the interview short so he could jump on a planning call. In the time remaining, he expressed a refreshingly optimistic view on the world’s prospects for averting disastrous climate change.

“The public is onboard. [The Kyoto Protocol] is ending and now we need something new. Investors are saying, ‘Are we crazy? Do you want to invest in coal? That’s a dead industry.’”

This combination of factors, Patz thinks, is creating powerful momentum that is likely to result in strong action by the countries meeting at the Paris conference. “The other thing which I think is extremely important,” Patz added, “is what people want, and what are the social norms. For current teenagers, it’s not cool to have a car.”

In addition to being hopeful about the conference’s chances of success, Patz isn’t too worried about the possibility of failure. “There’s huge things happening at the local level,” he pointed out. US states are setting their own emissions reductions goals, even if the federal government doesn’t take action. And anyone can make more environmentally-friendly choices in their day-to-day life.

Those interested in learning more about the link between climate change and health can join Dr. Patz’ Massive Open Online Course at https://moocs.wisc.edu/mooc/climate-change-policy-and-public-health/. There will also be a teleconference hosted live from Paris by Patz and his colleagues. It can be viewed on December 3 at 10:30am at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, 330 N. Orchard St. on the UW–Madison campus.