EPA Administrator’s WHO address completes 18-year circle for Patz

February 5, 2015

Listening to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy address the World Health Organization’s executive board, Jonathan Patz, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Global Health Institute, could see his work coming full circle.

Although he was a guest listening to McCarthy’s Jan. 29 presentation in Geneva, Patz was front and center 18 years ago as he organized the first-ever climate change and health briefing for then EPA Administrator Carol Browner.

“Back then, people wondered why I thought climate change was a health issue,” says Patz, who is also a professor in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Department of Population Health. “Now, to see the current U.S. EPA administrator bring that same message to this key policy meeting of the WHO is a full-circle event for me and incredibly gratifying.”

In 1997, Patz brought a U.S. Army colonel, a Centers for Disease Control & Prevention branch chief, and other leading scientists to visit with Browner. He was told he’d be lucky to have 30 minutes, but the meeting lasted for 90 minutes. “At the time, climate change was not at all on the health sectors’ radar screen,” he says. “And I was trying my hardest to get it on that screen.”

Patz saw climate change as a linchpin issue for preventive medicine that included energy policy, pollution, population growth and the many paths to disease. “It was barely investigated, so I chased it with fervor,’ he says. He later co-chaired the health panel of the first Congressionally mandated U.S. National Assessment on Climate Variability and Change and served as lead author for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that shared the 2007 Nobel Prize with Al Gore.

In her remarks, McCarthy encouraged WHO to continue to focus attention on air pollution and other environmental threats. “Environmental concerns are public health concerns,” she said. “In fact, public health threats from environmental pollutants now rival or exceed the burden of major infectious diseases globally.”

Echoing President Barack Obama, McCarthy called climate change the greatest challenge to future generations. “The carbon pollution that fuels climate change comes packaged with smog and soot, increasing risk for asthma, strokes, heart attacks and cancer,” she said.

Patz has emerged as a world authority on climate change and health. He is also a leading voice in promoting the co-benefits for health that come with climate change mitigation, from improved air quality to active transportation such as biking or walking.

“Climate change is an enormous public health challenge because it affects our health through multiple pathways,” Patz says. “But if the risks are so interdependent, so, too, are the opportunities.”

On sabbatical during the 2014-2015 academic year in Geneva, Switzerland, and Ethiopia, Patz is working with WHO to prepare for the United Nations’ climate negotiations in Paris later this year. He helped launch a new Urban Health & Well-being Programme at the Chinese Academy of Science in December and also spoke at the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Parks Congress.

Patz will deliver the semester-opening keynote on Feb. 17 at the University of Geneva on “Climate Change and Health: The collateral benefits of the fight against global warming.” He has also been invited by the Director General of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to speak in April at the Addis Ababa Sustainable Development Summit, “Africa’s Road to Paris,” in preparation for the climate negotiations later this year.

He is also co-editor and an author of a new textbook on climate change and health due out this summer from Oxford University Press. His MOOC, “Climate Change Policy and Public Health,” will be available in November.

As lead author of “Climate Change: Challenges and Opportunities for Global Health,” published in September 2014 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Patz brought international attention to the immediate health dangers of climate change and the opportunities presented in climate mitigation. The co-authors included Tracey Holloway from the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and Daniel Vimont from the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.