Alan Robock, a Distinguished Professor of climate science in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Rutgers, has whittled the essentials of global warming down to 10 words: “It’s real. It’s us. It’s bad. We’re sure. There’s hope.”
Those last two words — there’s hope — were the focus of a symposium that brought dozens of researchers to Rutgers last week to discuss projects designed to reduce climate change or mitigate its negative effects on human health.
The goal was to spur further innovation and foster collaboration among teams from Rutgers, Princeton University, Stevens Institute for Technology and New Jersey Institute for Technology.
“We are addressing the most urgent and critically important topic of our time, ensuring planetary and human health for generations to come by taking immediate and meaningful actions to combat climate change,” said Brian L. Strom, chancellor of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS) and the executive vice president for health affairs at Rutgers University.
“While there is some public awareness that climate change affects human health, most discussions focus on natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires,” Strom added. “While these large-scale events certainly have detrimental effects, it's poor air quality, flooding, infections related to contaminated water, access to health care and other everyday effects of climate change that have the biggest impact on our health. These growing daily environmental factors are making existing illnesses more acute while causing new diseases and conditions to emerge for people all over the world. Simultaneously, we must begin to address the contribution of the health delivery care system on climate.”
Presentations covered an array of topics, including:
- Using nanotechnology to feed crops nutrients that make them more resistant to higher temperatures and more variable water supplies
- Improving the sensors and modeling software used to predict problems
- Employing artificial intelligence and machine learning to downscale nationwide models and predict risks neighborhood by neighborhood
- Helping hospitals and other health care organizations minimize service disruptions during natural disasters such as floods, power outages and epidemics
- Convincing people to reduce climate change associated with agriculture by voluntarily shifting to plant-based diets
- Addressing environmental health disparities and environmental justice
Many of the presentations focused on efforts to develop global solutions for global problems, but others focused specifically on New Jersey.
“The history of modern environmental law has been primarily reactive,” said New Jersey Environmental Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette. “We have a Clean Water Act because, once upon a time, the rivers were literally on fire. Our model of legislation and regulation necessarily waits for the bad thing to happen and then tries to fix it, so we’re always playing catch up.”
“We need to flip that paradigm and work to make our regulatory structures more proactive,” LaTourette added. “A fine example of that is just yesterday, the governor and I announced our intent to propose an inland flood protection bill that uses good science to make wise public policy choices.”
Among other things, the bill would use science from Rutgers and other institutions on changing rainfall risks to draw forward-looking flood projections rather than relying on backward-looking data of where floods occurred when less climate change had taken place.
A particular focus of the conference was reducing health care’s contribution to global warming. Health care is relatively energy intensive: It is estimated that the industry produces about 10 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted in the United States and about 5 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted globally. The challenge will be reducing those emissions while simultaneously providing more services to people whose health is negatively affected by rising temperatures and their secondary effects.
“Climate change will have some impact on nearly all aspects of physical and mental health,” said symposium co-chair Soko Setoguchi, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and the Rutgers School of Public Health. “Severe weather can cause not only direct injuries but also mental health impacts. Extreme heat can cause a variety of illnesses, including cardiovascular events. Air pollution can cause asthma and cardiovascular disease. Changing temperatures and seasonality can bring new diseases to entire regions, and they increase the risk of waterborne diseases.”
These challenges demand a comprehensive response.
“The time to act is now,” said symposium co-chair Philip Demokritou, a Henry Rutgers Chair and professor in nanoscience and environmental bioengineering at Rutgers School of Public Health and director of the Division of Environmental and Population Health Biosciences at Environmental Occupational Health Sciences Institute.
“This requires both technological and behavioral changes to enhance the resilience and adaptability of our communities and mitigate environmental health impact from a changing climate. Such sustainable transformation will require the participation of all stakeholders. Academic institutions have an important role to play in training a new interdisciplinary, diverse and inclusive workforce in this space”