A Conversation With Paul Epstein, Climate and Health Researcher

>Paul_Epstein_sized.jpg Paul Epstein, the associate director of Harvard Medical School's Center for Health and the Global Environment, ranks among the world's leading researchers studying the connections between climate change and health. A medical doctor trained in tropical public health, he has worked closely with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, helping author reports on everything from how global warming is encouraging the spread of dengue fever to the true cost of coal power when health and environmental impacts are factored in.

Along with science writer Dan Ferber, Epstein is the coauthor of Changing Planet, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do About It, to be published by the University of California Press in April. Here, Epstein discusses the impact of climate change on global food prices, the potential of "green chemistry" to fight cancer, and baseball.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I try to talk to whoever will listen about how global environmental change affects our health. (How trying, you say. I actually keep quiet about it unless asked to give a talk; the stuff's not easy to take.) Our Center addresses climate change, biological diversity, and healthy and sustainable food.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on medicine?

The current focus on paying doctors with "global payments" (instead of traditional fees for service) is a step in the right direction. It aims to improve health care, reduce hospitalizations, and bring down costs.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your field?

It's hard to understand how a practicing physician can devote him- or herself to research and education on issues that seem so intangible. But it's critical for health professionals to speak out about the global impacts of public policies and private-sector practices. There's a small international network in our field, and recently the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, and other health professional organizations have become involved.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the health world?

The health impacts of an unstable climate regime are becoming more evident. There are direct effects of warming--bugs that bite and carry disease shifting to new territory, for example. But wilder weather--including wicked winters--takes the greatest toll.

A problem that's suddenly surged is the rise in food prices, grains particularly--posing nutritional risks for those in many nations. Several factors stand out. 1. Increased demand for meat. 2. Rising fuel prices. 3. Bioethanol crops (displacing food crops in some countries). And 4. The droughts, heat waves, and floods afflicting so many parts of the globe. The wheat crop crash in Russia during that country's 2010 summer heat wave, for example, boosted bread prices and led to food riots in Mozambique (where I lived and worked some decades ago).

You'll notice that three of the four reasons listed are about climate instability and energy. The right energy policies are needed to restabilize the climate.

What's a health trend that you wish would go away?

If a wish could make it so. I wish the upward trend in cancer would abate; it is heartening that more people are surviving. Prevention involves reducing the carcinogens assaulting our defenses through approaches like "green chemistry," which uses non-toxic chemicals, and plants and algae, rather than petroleum, as the stocks for plastics and other products, keeping our water safe. European nations are moving in this direction. Agriculture without pesticides is a crucial measure and growing more food locally reduces air pollution from transport.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

Rather than throwing me off track, a new idea shifted me onto new track. Three years ago I began focusing the health lens on proposed climate solutions. I first examined the problems with some solutions (e.g., more coal and nuclear energy), and then healthy solutions (electric vehicles, cleanly powered smart grids, and healthy cities programs) that could be rapidly scaled up today.

Who are three people in the fields of medicine or public health that you'd put in a Hall of Fame?

Three people you've probably never heard of. Alexander Leaf, a Harvard physician and researcher who first called attention in 1989 in the New England Journal of Medicine to the health risks of climate change. Barbara McClintock, a research pioneer who discovered--in corn, in the '30s--jumping genes, a finding that propelled the field of genetics and still challenges today's inadequate understanding of the gene/protein orchestra. (She did get the Nobel Prize in 1983.) Cynthia Rosenzweig, who studies the impacts of climate change on agriculture, and who today is helping New York City become a greener town.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?


What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?


What song's been stuck in your head lately?

O Leozinho (The Little Lion), by Brazilian singer/songwriter Caetano Veloso.

Image: Courtesy of Paul Epstein