Brown experts on public health in a changing climate

Brown University leaders Ashish K. Jha and Kim Cobb discuss the intersection of climate change and people’s health, the challenges of our information ecosystem, and how the University’s collaborative efforts are fostering innovative solutions and preparing future leaders.

Increasing air pollution, warming temperatures, rising sea-levels, emerging novel infections, droughts, floods, and wildfires are just some of the ways climate change is quickly becoming the biggest threat to the health of people around the globe. Add in the challenges of our information ecosystem—where dis- and misinformation can thrive—and addressing these issues only gets more difficult.

Can experts come together to anticipate shifting flu seasons? Examine attitudes toward clean energy options? Improve communication for better public understanding of these issues? And prepare the next generation of health and environmental leaders to quickly start making an impact in these areas?

Two of Brown’s leaders in these areas—Ashish K. Jha, dean of Brown’s School of Public Health, and Kim Cobb, director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (IBES)—believe the answer is unequivocally yes. These challenges create opportunities, including experiential learning and training for students, and ways for Brown to bring together its world-leading expertise, from data science to engineering to the humanities, to move solutions forward.

What issues related to human and public health are caused by or influenced by climate change?

Ashish K. Jha: Climate change is the ultimate threat multiplier. It takes all the threats to human health and makes them more complicated, harder, or worse. Heat waves, for example, have very direct effects—particularly on kids and on the elderly.

We all breathe a certain amount of air pollution; the same level of pollution is deadlier as temperatures rise. Many of us are suffering from readily known health issues such as asthma, strokes, and heart attacks. We have also seen a doubling of vector-borne diseases over the last 20 years, the arrival of new infections such as Zika into the United States, and so many other issues: impact on crops, displacement of individuals, the impact on water. It is not a single effect. So, we need to understand not only the big issue, but also the local impacts and how we're going to mitigate them.

What are the critical opportunities that relate to public health that you see right now?

Kim Cobb: While climate change is an important threat to human health and well-being, taking climate action is the single biggest opportunity of this century to improve health outcomes and well-being.

The opportunity is to transition our energy infrastructure away from dirty, polluting fossil fuels and onto a base that’s clean and renewable energy, which would remove one of the largest threats to public health welfare in this country: air pollution. It’s an $800 billion per year problem in this country. And, this is one of the largest sources of environmental injustices in the history of the world. Intervening in that will deliver innumerable benefits to public health.  

Jha: One out of every 10 deaths in the world is from air pollution: a lot of heart attacks, strokes, and asthma are being caused by the pollution we don’t see. The co-benefits are not just in saving lives, but in a dramatic reduction in spending on health care. If we take this action, it's going to have a profound impact both on people’s health and on our economy.

What are your priorities—and some recent successes—as they relate to these challenges and problems?

Cobb: At Brown, we have world-leading expertise in the chemistry of air pollution. We have a deep bench in the geosciences, applied math, and data science. When we put teams together, we’re combining that kind of expertise with School of Public Health expertise, and with scholars in the humanities, to think about potential solutions and how we can work in new ways. We are pulling together faculty from across Brown and having conversations around how we could leverage the research strengths that we have at Brown and lift our ambitions and focus them at the same time. Ashish and I have partnered to create new initiatives that are going to be transformative here and will be unique across the nation and the world.

One is a program called Equitable Climate Futures—a partnership among the School of Public Health, IBES, the School of Engineering, and the Watson Institute—to think about seeding the most ambitious class of climate solutions research. It will bring together experts across our campus as well as outside non-academic partners to figure out where those problems are and how we need to deliver on those solutions on behalf of communities—with a strong focus on equitable and just outcomes.

While climate change is an important threat to human health and well-being, taking climate action is the single biggest opportunity of this century to improve health outcomes and well-being.

Kim Cobb Director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society; Professor of Environment and Society and Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences
Kim Cobb, director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, clapping behind a podium.

Another initiative, an opportunity from the National Science Foundation on coastal resilience, was one of the most ambitious cross-disciplinary externally partnered proposals I have ever been involved with, and we were successful in getting the funding. We leveraged scholars from The Warren Alpert Medical School and the School of Public Health on a team that included climate scientists, data scientists, climate modelers, and community partners—people who can help us understand the complexity of the problem space. We don’t drop in solutions; we co-develop them with community partners who have been working in this space and living those realities in many cases for decades. That is one of our earliest successes.

Jha: Rachel Baker (John and Elizabeth Irving Family Assistant Professor of Climate Health and assistant professor of epidemiology and environment and society) has been working on how climate change is affecting disease spread, particularly around respiratory viruses. We all have a mental model of how flu works, and of flu seasons. Climate change may shift that. If you have a simplistic model of climate change, you’re going to come up with simplistic models of how viruses are going to change, and those models will almost surely be wrong. You need someone like Rachel to partner with climate scientists and think through how this is going to affect different communities around the country and around the world. There are multiple examples of multidisciplinary efforts like this that are not possible at most universities. Brown is naturally suited for this.

I would argue that Brown is already one of the top places in the country working on the intersection between climate and health. But, we still have a small footprint in this area and the topic is large. We need to build out our team of scientists and practitioners who can tackle these big challenges and do so in ways that have a lasting impact.

Anyone who graduates from a public health school has to get trained in the health effects of climate change. Climate change will shape their public health practice for years and decades to come. There’s a lot of enthusiasm for this from our students, from our undergraduates through our master’s and doctoral students.

Ashish K. Jha Dean of the School of Public Health; Professor of Health Services, Policy and Practice
Ashish Jha stands behind a podium delivering a speech at a School of Public Health event.

What role do students and community partners play in this work?  

Cobb: I love working with students. I believe in their potential. It is a challenge of a lifetime to think about delivering on their promise and the demands that they’re placing on educators to equip them with sufficient knowledge, networks, skills, and opportunities. How quickly can we innovate to meet that demand and to prepare them to have the kinds of jobs that they want to have? One of the key aspects is experiential learning, making sure that they are equipped with the real-world skills gained through internships and deep research experiences.

At IBES, every research project has a number of undergraduates supporting the work. As we grow faculty in this area, we’ll multiply the number of internship opportunities available as well. We’re working closely with the new Career Center for Career Exploration in trying to create a whole spectrum of opportunities in climate sustainability in the environment.

Jha: Anyone who graduates from a public health school has to get trained in the health effects of climate change. Climate change will shape their public health practice for years and decades to come. There’s a lot of enthusiasm for this from our students, from our undergraduates through our master’s and doctoral students. Figuring out how to engage that critical constituency is a big part of what we’re thinking about.

At the School of Public Health, our motto is “We learn public health by doing public health.” We already have deep relationships with community-based organizations and with government agencies. We need to build more with the private sector, which will be a key part of the solution. While we think about these issues globally, we need to work locally to show how mitigation and adaptation against the health effects of climate change can be successful—and then work on scaling those nationally and globally.

What are your experiences with misinformation and disinformation and what can we do about it?

Cobb: In many places, just the phrase climate change gets you escorted out the door. It has been incredibly informative to have an awareness of the tribalized, polarized nature of this discourse and both the gaps that have existed and the ways in which the science of communication is evolving quickly to help us. I’m a scientist, so to me, data is supreme. But me beating people over the head with data, guess what? It doesn't work. I keep in mind that the vast majority of Americans, opinion polls show us, are deeply concerned about climate change, understand that humans are causing it, and support a list of potential solutions. I remind myself that my job is to connect to those people, and that there are certain factions of society which will always agree to disagree. And that's part of the challenge in the opportunity space at this moment.

Scholarship within IBES has enabled us to recognize the science of communication that is being leveraged to distort the work that we are doing, the impacts that it could have, and the benefits that it could accrue. Timmons Roberts (Ittleson Professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology and executive director of the Climate Social Science Network) runs a program at Brown, currently with 35 students, that shines a light on the instrumentation of mis- and disinformation within the climate space specifically. What are the networks, what's the funding, what are the political ties? How does it work? What can we learn from it? 

And we are training our faculty, our students, and our community partners to be effective communicators as well. It is one of the core missions in our strategic plan.

Jha: My foray into this field began with the pandemic. I realized relatively quickly that we all live in our own self-reinforcing information ecosystems. A crisis creates information needs, but scientists are not very good at identifying or meeting those needs, which creates an information vacuum where bad information can spread. Early in the pandemic, I used to think a lot about what information I wanted to communicate. Over time, I came to realize that the right question was: what is the information people want and need? What are they looking for? And how do I get that information to them in a way that is useful and meaningful?

That is the same with climate change. The way you do that—and I’ve learned this from Stefanie Friedhoff (co-founder and director of the Information Futures Lab at Brown) is to get out into the community and listen. The work that her group is doing with undergraduates, asking Rhode Islanders their thoughts around climate change, has been critical. During the summer heat waves, the number one issue on the minds of Rhode Islanders? High electrical bills.

Now if we are talking about going to cleaner energy, and someone says, “That’s going to raise your electric bill,” it changes people’s views on whether or not they are supportive of it. There’s broad consensus that climate change is a problem and we’ve got to do something about it, but we have not spent enough time understanding how it’s affecting people’s lives and finding out their information needs. Until we do, we are not going to get the public behind us.

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