Dan Fost, UC San Francisco
The University of California Center for Climate, Health and Equity, dedicated to the proposition that “taking action on climate change is one of the most powerful health interventions of our time,” officially launched this week with a series of high-level conversations open to the public online.
The center — which opened its doors in 2021, is housed at UC San Francisco and includes representation from all 10 UC campuses — is devoted to tackling the serious health issues that climate change is causing and working to make sure solutions are adopted equitably.
The connection between climate change and health runs deep, as heat waves, hurricanes, floods, fires, drought and other life-threatening events bring health consequences, from asthma to hunger to pollution.
The center aims to conduct research on climate-health impacts and solutions, educate tomorrow’s climate-health leaders, build climate-resilient health systems and advocate for health and equity in climate policies. In its work for equity, the center recognizes that climate change will hit vulnerable people the hardest, including those in low wealth communities, communities of color, historically marginalized communities, communities impacted by systemic racism, and low-income countries.
This week’s events included addresses from UC President Michael Drake, M.D., and UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood, MBBS, and panel discussions on climate change, health and the fossil fuel industry; climate change and health education, from K-12 to higher education; mental health and climate change; and how California is leading the way to advance health and equity in climate policy.
“Climate change is the biggest health crisis of our time, and it’s everywhere,” said Arianne Teherani, Ph.D., a UCSF professor of Medicine and the center’s founding co-director. “It affects every pathway of health.”
Preparing communities for the consequences
Increased rainfall in some regions is already leading to a rise in certain infectious diseases, Teherani says. Extreme temperatures, both hot and cold, are taking lives; wildfires are exacerbating existing health conditions including those “we don’t even realize,” Teherani says. For instance, “One of our medical students has done critically important work on how wildfire affects skin health.”
Significantly, the center includes equity in its title and as part of its core mission, as research shows many people in underserved and underrepresented areas don’t have the resources to cope with climate change and will likely suffer the worst consequences.
“A big focus of our work is equity,” says Naomi Beyeler, MPH, MCP, managing director of the center. “How do you have climate solutions that not only protect health but protect health equity, and have both our climate solutions and our health response led by and meet the needs of impacted communities?”
Sheri Weiser, M.D., the center’s other founding co-director, brings to the work a background researching food insecurity and other social and structural drivers of HIV and chronic disease epidemics, both domestically and internationally. “It’s become very clear that climate change is driving food insecurity and poor health worldwide,” Weiser says.
The center also plans to engage communities to help prepare for the consequences of climate change, including responding to climate-caused disasters.
“We’re hoping to be implementing innovative health- and equity-focused climate adaptation solutions,” Weiser says. “We are really keen on developing community health adaptation and resilience pilot programs that are going to be co-developed with frontline communities. And we’re also going to be convening partners, sharing solutions and building capacity across communities.”
Collaborating to bring about change
Until recently, schools for health science professionals have not covered the effects of climate change in any comprehensive way, but in the year since its founding, the Center has helped establish courses on climate and health across the UC system.
“We welcome anybody who wants to do any work in climate,” Teherani says. “The whole point of the center is to build that community across the UC system to bring about change.”
“Leveraging the expertise of the entire UC system is one of the center’s great strengths,” Weiser says. “UC campuses are situated throughout the state, and with California at the frontlines of climate policy nationally and internationally, this gives us an opportunity to collaborate with others in the state and bolster the public service mission of the University.”
The need for solutions will necessarily engage lawmakers and others in the public arena. “Health professionals are among the most trusted voices for generating political will and public will for climate action,” says Beyeler, the managing director. “Core to our mission is the idea of mobilizing the health community to be engaged in climate action and climate solutions. When we take action on climate change, we are truly embedding health and health equity at the core of that.”
Other speakers at Wednesday and Thursday’s virtual event included state and federal officials, climate activists, representatives of affected communities, and many professors from UC campuses and beyond who have studied these issues.