When people hear the words climate change, many might picture a lonesome polar bear on a melting ice cap. This makes sense—type the words “climate change” in a Google Image search and a dozen photos of dire polar bears appear. This is a very real and devastating consequence of global warming, but, increasingly, experts have been emphasizing that it’s not just wildlife that are suffering. Human health is just as much at risk due to the effects and causes of climate change.
A new first-of-its-kind joint venture from Boston University School of Public Health and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health aims to confront the massive health threats posed by climate change by spurring global research cooperation, action, and knowledge sharing.
The BUSPH-HSPH CAFÉ Research Coordinating Center (RCC) is launching with support from a $6.7 million, three-year grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health. The center will convene, accelerate, foster, and expand (as the acronym, CAFÉ, implies) the network of researchers studying the multilayered consequences of climate change on human health and the environment. It will be led jointly by SPH’s Gregory Wellenius, a professor of environmental health, and Amruta Nori-Sarma, an assistant professor of environmental health, along with Harvard biostatistics professor Francesca Dominici. The partnership will leverage knowledge and resources from the two institutions to accelerate climate and health data collection and management, share data resources and tools, foster collaborative projects, and keep a pulse on the evolving science within key research areas.
“Our goal is to share our wisdom, expertise, and resources on a national and global scale,” says Wellenius, who is also director of BU’s Center for Climate and Health. “We hope to bring people together and improve data sharing in ways that will make everyone working to translate cutting-edge research into meaningful solutions more successful and effective.”
The initiative also aims to diversify and expand the climate and health field, and break long-standing barriers to collaboration in academia by providing coordinated research support and opportunities to climate and health scholars across the globe. Building a network of experts—through training, pilot grant opportunities, and mentorship—will be a key priority, with an emphasis on collaboration with minority-serving institutions, such as historically Black colleges and universities.
“The intention of the CAFÉ is not just to thicken the pipeline of researchers in the climate and health field,” Nori-Sarma says, “but [also] to support junior and senior leadership in the CAFÉ so that we’re developing the next generation of leaders and a truly global community of practice.”
The coleaders hope to bring together partners outside of academia, too, including government agencies, community-based and nongovernmental organizations, industry experts, various foundations, and potential funders. The group will host annual meetings, with the first to be held later this year.
“Unlike traditional scientific conferences, this event will engage key stakeholders from a range of sectors—from researchers to funders to practitioners to community-based organizations—to promote the translation of cutting-edge research into solutions,” Wellenius says.
Other faculty and staff at BU will conduct research and provide support to the center, including Jonathan Levy, SPH chair and professor of environmental health, Benjamin Sovacool, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of Earth and environment and director of the Institute for Global Sustainability, and Pamela Templer, CAS chair and professor of biology.
Climate change impacts both mental and physical health, Nori-Sarma says. She has found that extreme heat worsens mental health conditions and that emergency room visits for mental health care are more likely on very hot days. One of her priorities is making sure that the needs of people in vulnerable communities—such as low-income neighborhoods in a flood zone or places less likely to have air-conditioning—are aligned with her research goals, and that useful data is accessible to public health researchers who don’t have as robust resources.
Rick Woychik, director of NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, says that the initiative will aim to “conduct innovative solutions-driven research to reduce the health impacts of climate change, especially working with communities most affected by adverse weather-related events.”
“I hope this yields a group of practitioners that understands the challenges we’re going to face in human health as a result of climate change, and the solutions that will help,” Nori-Sarma says. “It’s about expanding the network as much as possible and bringing everyone to the table.”