Polar bears have long been one of the central images depicting the risks of climate change. Baby polar bears are, undeniably, adorable. They are also, undeniably, in danger because of climate change. However, using the polar bear as a kind of mascot for climate change is dangerous as well. This implies that climate change mostly affects animals (like polar bears) and distant places (like the Arctic) rather than people (like a five-year-old with asthma) and nearby places (like Durham). The Climate & Health meeting was focused on shifting the narrative behind climate change, as health is the human face of climate change.

I learned so much about the health effects of climate change, yet specific facts stand out to me as being important because they bring the broad issue of climate change down to a measurable and immediate impact, a very human impact. Everyone knows that carbon dioxide levels are rising, yet it is striking that this carbon dioxide-heavy atmosphere will cause food crops to decrease 5-10% in nutritional value. Everyone knows that temperatures are rising, yet it is alarming to learn that Mecca might become uninhabitable due to extreme heat, causing a crisis of faith for Muslims who pilgrimage there. Everyone knows that sea levels are rising, yet it is frightening to think of climate change refugees in addition to the current refugee crisis.

This Climate & Health meeting helped me to directly link climate change with measurable effects on human lives. It has given me a new perspective on how to advocate for reductions in fossil fuel usage or increases in funding for climate change research. Just by being in the same room as a couple hundred changemakers, I was inspired to aim for the same level of endurance, perseverance, and work ethic that they have. I hope to continue their work in changing the narrative and ameliorating the effects of climate change so that we can save people’s lives (and maybe even some polar bears as well).

Written by Elizabeth Allen, ’20