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Scholars address how climate change inflicts a toll on health

During a daylong symposium, University of Miami experts in fields ranging from medicine and law to engineering and atmospheric science discuss how climate exacerbates certain health conditions and provide a blueprint for mitigating its effects.


The elderly woman would call Armen Henderson’s community health clinic at least twice a day, pleading for someone to make a house call to her southeast Miami-Dade County residence. “Hey, doctor,” she would say. “Please come and see me. I don’t feel safe in my apartment.” 

When a team of physicians was finally able to visit the woman, they saw firsthand the squalid conditions in which she lived: a leaky roof, an air-conditioner that didn’t work properly, and signs of rodent infestation. 

“When we think about climate change, it’s important for us to think about people like this elderly lady, because none of the technology we’re discussing and none of the changes in temperature really matter unless we can get to people like her,” said Henderson, an assistant professor of hospital medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. 

Henderson, who started his clinic four years ago to provide free health care to some of the county’s most vulnerable populations, made those comments on Friday at the University of Miami’s fifth Climate and Health Symposium. 

During the daylong summit, held at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and organized by the Department of Public Health Sciences, experts in fields ranging from architecture, engineering, and communication to business, medicine, and law presented research on, and discussed ways in which, weather, global warming, and environment impact the health of at-risk populations. Through a series of panels, they also proposed strategies to address the climate and health crisis. 

“One of the ways in which we should talk about climate change through the lens of a disaster is by humanizing the stories of how it affects people, particularly low-income groups who live in black and brown communities and in Zip Codes where people die 15 years earlier than those who live in affluent Zip Codes that are literally only walking distance away from health clinics,” Henderson explained. 

The Dade County Street Response team he helped initiate four years ago develops interventions to assist those who fall between the cracks, he said. 

While people—such as the elderly woman Henderson assisted—can request help, other segments of the population that endure the most devastating health impacts of climate change are unable to ask for aid and often show up in hospital emergency rooms suffering from climate-related illnesses, said Lisa Gwynn, associate professor of clinical pediatrics and public health sciences at the Miller School and medical director of the Pediatric Mobile Clinic. 

“One of the primary effects related to heat is heat-related illness, and extreme heat is the leading cause of environmental deaths in the United States. It kills more people than any other types of weather events,” Gwynn explained. “However, the research on pediatric populations is somewhat limited. We do know that infants have a higher risk because of their immature thermoregulatory systems. And babies can’t give us any warning. They can’t speak. So, oftentimes they are in serious condition when they end up in our emergency departments, and we have to be aggressive with their resuscitation.”

Noting that about 9 percent of the children in the United States have asthma, Gwynn said that extreme heat can exacerbate the condition. 

Weather can also affect the transmission of diseases, reported Jagger Alexander, the first graduate of the University’s Master of Science in Climate and Health degree program. Analyzing COVID-19 and weather data from across Florida, he discovered that weather conditions can account for up to a 22 percent variation in transmission of the virus. 

“While outdoor transmission makes up only a small fraction of total cases, weather may nonetheless affect COVID transmission indirectly,” he stated. “For example, in certain weather conditions, people may be more likely to congregate indoors, causing an increase in case numbers.” 

For his study, Alexander included the weather variables of temperature, which showed the strongest correlation with COVID cases, precipitation, windspeed, and sea level pressure. He used machine learning methods to illustrate complex data trends that common statistical techniques do not capture. “One case of this is seen with temperature, where temperature extremes on either end of the spectrum—an abnormally warm or cool day—were associated with higher rates of COVID cases,” he said. 

Mitigating climate’s impact on health will require that we make changes to the built environment, such as constructing more green roofs, designing walkable and connected communities, and planting more trees, said Joanna Lombard, a professor in the School of Architecture and a founding member of the University’s Built Environment Behavior and Health Research Group. 

“Most of us do not live in tents in the woods, and everything that we build affects our behavior and health,” she noted. “We’re responsible for an enormous amount of [carbon] emissions. So, before we do anything else, we need to make a dent in that.” 

Collaborating with William W. Aitken, an internist at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital, Lombard has studied the impacts of “greenness” on cardiovascular health and other conditions, finding that people who live on neighborhood blocks with more tree canopy and urban greenspace have lower incidents of heart disease and other illnesses. 

“These are some very basic things,” Lombard pointed out. “It does not require high technology or advances in any major field of engineering or science.”

Other highlights of the symposium included: 

  • In brief remarks at the start of the symposium, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava applauded the University’s efforts in addressing climate change and its health impacts, and she noted that she is leading an effort to revamp the county’s Office of Emergency Management.
  • Landolf Rhode-Barbarigos, an assistant professor of civil and architectural engineering in the College of Engineering, detailed University projects aimed at protecting coral reefs and shorelines from storm surge and sea level rise, noting that coral reefs are vital to the ecosystem and provide pharmaceutical benefits. He also spoke about the College of Engineering’s collaboration with the Office of Civic and Community Engagement to identify strategies to adapt buildings to make them more flood resistant. 
  • Ben Kirtman, professor of atmospheric sciences at the Rosenstiel School, described two of the long-range forecasting tools he helped develop and how they can be used to aid emergency managers and health care teams in planning for potential disease outbreaks that can result from extreme weather. “Getting people to respond to those forecasts is a big challenge,” he said. “We have to build trust and relationships in how to use those forecasts.” 
  • Jessica Owley, professor of law and director of the Environmental Law Program, talked about the legal mechanisms and policies that are in place to tackle climate mitigation.
Written by Robert C. Jones Jr.
Published on May 10, 2022