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Faces of Public Health: Al Sommer, the Johns Hopkins University

Jun 30, 2014, 1:09 PM


A new climate change report, Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States, suggests that the American economy could face significant and widespread disruptions from climate change unless U.S. businesses and policymakers take immediate action to reduce climate risk. The report was released by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

The assessment of the committee that wrote and reviewed the report is that communities, industries and properties across the country face profound risks from climate change, but that the most severe risks can be avoided through early investments in resilience, as well as through immediate action to reduce the pollution that causes global warming.

The public health findings of the report were reviewed by Al Sommer, MD, Dean Emeritus of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. NewPublicHealth spoke with Sommer about the report.

NewPublicHealth: How did the report come about?

Al Sommer: The report came about because of the primary interest of the three co-chairs—Hank Paulson, investor Tom Styra and Mike Bloomberg—who felt that there was a need to better understand and better describe the possible public health impacts of climate change on businesses and labor productivity. Their goal is to engage the interest of business leaders so that they begin to think about the ramifications and perhaps see the problems of climate change from a totally different perspective than we usually talk about it.

I think from my own personal perspective that one of the great advantages of this report is that the group that did the analyses stuck with the data and the assumptions, and used sophisticated modeling and statistical analyses to give a range of outcomes. The most important part of the report from my perspective is that it has a granularity that most of the [climate change] reports don’t have, so it looks at likely outcomes in different regions of the country simultaneously.

In some instances, it looks like there is no change. There is reduced mortality in the northern part of the country because there is less freezing. But at the same time in the southern part of the country there’s dramatically increased mortality because of increased heat and humidity.

And since the report is mostly about business, you can see this huge impact on agriculture. The report shows that a lot of agricultural productivity now in the Midwest could be totally strained by climate change, whereas northern parts of the country and the northwest of the country—and if you happen to live in Canada, you’re particularly lucky—are places that will get warmer and it will be easier to grow crops there in the future.

NPH: Do any of the findings differ at all in any significant way from the White House report on climate change released earlier this spring?

Sommer: I think they differ only on the granularity that they provide. So if you look at the southern part of the United States, whether it’s the southeast or the Midwest, it gets very hot and it gets humid, and so when you have this higher humidity along with higher heat, that’s a level where the body can no longer maintain its core temperature at a level that’s compatible with survival. And so there will be periods of time where there certainly will be excess mortality, and some estimates show between 10 and 20 times increased mortality from excessive heat events towards the end of the century. And even if everybody had air conditioning you’re just not going to go out for four months of the year, and that has an impact on productivity, because people can’t work outside. Even if they’re healthy and young they can’t work as long, they can’t work as efficiently—and it really is antithetical to survival.

And if you think that many of our major infrastructural installations now have been moved to the southeast, that’s going to be one of the hardest hit areas. What do you do about agriculture? What do you do about construction when those are areas where you can’t work outside for three or four months out of the year?

NPH: Does the report make recommendations?

Sommer: The report was designed explicitly to describe what the impact would be if nothing changes. If we don’t reduce CO2 emissions, if we don’t install more air conditioners and provide subsidies for poor people and the frail and the elderly, so they can be assured that they’re in a cool area where they can survive. It’s assuming everything is unchanged because that’s—as the title says—risky business. That’s business as usual.

The goal of the report was to call attention to the issues so that people start thinking creatively and collectively about what might be the most advantageous and acceptable and productive ways to move forward to begin to address this, rather than to set up some proscriptive ways for dealing with it, which might antagonize one side or the other or—quite frankly—limit the imaginative response that we might be able to create if we all put our heads together.

NPH: What are the next steps for the group that worked on this report?

Sommer: The report presents best estimates with real probabilities of what’s going to happen and how often extreme events might happen. One of the things they’re planning to do is to expand some of the regional and statewide estimates, so people at those state levels can begin to look at more detail about their state.

From a broader perspective, I think the report helps set the stage to begin identifying audiences that specifically need to understand the implications of this report and then targeting the messages and the major points for those particular audiences, so that people can better understand those things that are most critical and become concerned enough to begin to put their heads together.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.