April 28, 2008
Week links public health, climate change
Bethany Caruso and Micah Hahn are students in the Rollins School of Public Health’s Global Environmental Health Program
and members of the steering committee that organized Emory’s National Public Health Week, held this year April 7–13.
By Bethany Caruso
At Emory, I always find that my education continues beyond the classroom. During the week of April 7th, I participated in a variety of events in conjunction with National Public Health Week, themed “Climate Change: Our Health in the Balance.” If I learned anything that week, it was that climate change is very real.
The debate is over. What is more important now is to consider who is causing the most change, who is being most affected by change, and what we can do.
I consider myself pretty hip to the green movement. I recycle. I turn off my lights when I am not home. I have compact fluorescent light bulbs in a few lamps.
I do my part, or so I thought. In a live presentation of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” John Mlade from The Climate Project noted that America emits more CO2 per capita than any other country, making it the largest contributor to climate change. But — and here is the irony — we are the least likely to feel its effects.
During National Public Health Week, Katy Hinman from Georgia Interfaith Power and Light spoke about the moral imperative to address climate change. We need to take responsibility for our actions and acknowledge that we are negatively impacting others. It is kind of like second-hand smoking: innocent non-participants getting sick off of someone else’s action. This is second-hand climate change, with innocent countries getting sick off of our behavior. The countries that contribute the least are affected the most. Small island communities are feeling the effects of sea level rise and some islands are being abandoned all together. In the Andes, glaciers are melting rapidly and causing indigenous communities to wonder where their water source will be in the future. Storms are getting stronger, droughts are getting more severe, ecosystems are changing.
Also during National Public Health Week, we learned about the need for conservation and behavior change right here in Atlanta. Panelists from the University of Georgia, the Water Resource Institute and Georgia State University spoke about the Georgia drought and how its gravity is largely determined by how much water we all use.
The amount of rain we will have in the future is not something we can expect to be able to predict anytime soon. But we do know that the population will continue to grow and more and more people will be drawing from the same source.
If we all want to live here, we are going to need to be smarter about our water use. We, in America, are not accustomed to living without clean water, but if this trend continues, if we do not conserve, we may very well have dry taps in the not so distant future.
By Micah Hahn
And so we ended a week of creative, thought-provoking, and engaging events about the implications of climate change for our health. Now we have turned our attention back to the pressing issues at hand: thesis, finals, summer plans.
We will continue to emit carbon dioxide by taking long showers, leaving our lights on, and driving to school. But now we understand that these greenhouse gas emissions will also cause the average global temperature to rise. Now we know that this increase in temperature will have multiple impacts on our environment, our health, and the way the world looks by the time we have children. Now we are armed with the knowledge we need to educate the world. But is that enough?
Although understanding the connection between recycling, water conservation, alternative transportation and other environmentally friendly actions with climate change is the first step, actually integrating these habits into our lifestyles is essential if we are to claim that National Public Health Week was a success.
It is easy to print up flyers and gather a few speakers, which is why we like to do information campaigns. But the goal of public health is not just to educate the public about the consequences of behaviors; it is about changing behaviors. Why does this task seem so much harder when we are the ones who need to change our lifestyles?
I have a million reasons that I should not bike to school — rain, dangerous roads, distance, hazards traveling at night, not enough time — all perfectly legitimate and adequate to justify my $600 parking pass. However, in the spirit of National Public Health Week, I attempted the trek. I was nervous — I am not a great biker. I was pretty convinced I would not make it all the way to school, but gave it a shot anyway.
I had some time to think while I was riding, and I realized two things: biking with a friend and taking a break from the stresses of school and work was nice; and the feeling of accomplishment I had when I pulled back into my driveway that evening, sweating despite the cool temperature, was not something that I could get from making an “A” on a paper or getting into a Ph.D. program.
This is the time, when we are young, to take risks, challenge ourselves and define who we are. Do I really want to be someone who does not think about the impact of my actions on the planet? Do I want to be a consumer-culture machine driven by habit rather than the knowledge I possess? The thing is, these are questions that we each have to ask ourselves. National Public Health Week fostered education and integration of the wider Emory community into the work of Rollins School of Public Health and the issue of climate change. That last step — action — is up to each of us.