Bryce Cracknell ’18,

The American Public Health Association (APHA) is calling 2017 the “Year of Climate Change and Health.” I attended the Climate and Health Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia on Thursday, February 16th, originally scheduled and hosted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). However, the new administration canceled the conference and former Vice President Al Gore, the Climate Reality Project, and Turner Foundation were able to quickly organize and consolidate what was set to be a three-day conference to a one-day meeting. So while this meeting was based on the science, facts, and policy, it inherently felt (as one of my peers pointed out) an act of resistance to the new administration.

Catherine Coleman Flowers of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise invited me and a small cohort of Duke students to attend the conference. This year, Catherine Flowers is a Practitioner in Residence at the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. Catherine was a speaker at this conference, and she provided a voice that is often left out of these spaces. Ironically, every expert will tell you that she represents those who are most affected; the poor and people of color, yet they are not well represented.

Catherine spoke in the afternoon on the “From Science to Practice in the United States” panel. Her talk was titled “Vulnerable Populations” and was the first to share a very real example of the effects of climate change. The audience, made up of healthcare and climate experts, were moved. It wasn’t theoretical or hypothetical, but real stories and experiences of people who are experiencing the severe effects of climate change. Even though I had heard this story several times before and have been to Lowndes County, AL it always feels as if I heard it for the first time. Catherine’s words were incredibly inspiring, and I hope more voices like hers will fill that space in the future. She received a standing ovation for her work and most of the questions and appreciation after the panel was sent in her direction. Catherine shared some recognition with our table and the work she does with Duke University.

I appreciate how this conference differed from how we typically discuss climate change. Instead of solely focusing on the dangerous and threatening such as sea level rise and drought, they made a point to share where we’ve made progress and reinforced the fact that we have the solutions to this problem. For example, due to larger than predicted increases in the use of clean energy and the shutting down of coal plants, CO2 emissions have remained stagnant over the last three years, and this year may be the first time we see a decrease in emissions. While this is exciting, it is not enough if we want to stay below the 2 degrees Celsius that climate scientists say is manageable. However, with successes such as the Paris Conference, the global community can certainly reach that goal.

Much of the modification in the climate change narrative may be attributed to the climate denialists. In order to convince people, the scientific community has had to find new ways to not only convince people that climate change is real but that it is a pressing problem for you, your family, and future generations. Considerable research has been conducted that show the immediate and harmful effects of climate change on one’s health. This includes heat-related illness due to extreme heat, fatalities from extreme weather events, cardiovascular disease from air pollution, tropical diseases due to the change in vector ecology, allergies, water-borne diseases from water quality impacts, malnutrition from food supply impacts, and forced migration and civil conflict due to environmental degradation to name a few. “Health is the human face of climate change.”

The conference was located at the Carter Center in Atlanta, and it never crossed my mind that President Carter may make an appearance. So you can imagine how surprised I was to see him walk on stage in the middle of the conference to thank everyone for their attendance and to share some of the work that his foundation has done in fighting disease. Between listening to President Carter and Vice President Al Gore speak, it was enough of a reason to come to the conference. I remember watching “An Inconvenient Truth” for the first time in middle school and how incredible that documentary was at describing the problem at hand. Then listening to Al Gore speak in person was even more amazing as he not only laid out the problem before us but also the progress that we’ve made since that documentary. I have come to fully appreciate the work he has done on climate change and his ability not only to make it digestible to any audience, but to also mobilize people around the world to make a difference. As one panelist mentioned, “We can no longer support healthy people on a sick planet.”

 

 

Read reflections the four additional students who attended the Climate and Health Meeting:

Mary Aline Fertin, ’19
“An interesting takeaway from this discussion was the importance of finding trusted voices to communicate messages in a time when politicians considered untrustworthy”

Elizabeth Allen, ’20
“This Climate & Health meeting helped me to directly link climate change with measurable effects on human lives.”

Onuoha Odim, ’20
“Attending the Climate Change and Health Conference allowed me to understand the significance of pragmatism, especially in trying to curb the effects of climate change and helping disenfranchised communities. ”

Julia Myhre, ’18
“While the issue is serious, there is hope and many concrete ways to move forward.”