Channeling Campus Resources to Sustain Tomorrow’s Health

The crew including West Point cadets builds the digester.

University of Wisconsin-Madison students from veterinary medicine, environmental studies, engineering and agricultural and life sciences are leading a project to build the first small-scale biogas digester in western Uganda. It will convert waste from latrines into cooking fuel and fertilizer. The crew, including West Point cadets, builds the digester.

There’s no silver bullet to combat the health effects of climate change, Professor Jonathan Patz told members of the Bascom Hill Society July 10. Instead, it is a million-step process with a million different approaches across many disciplines.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has within its major schools, colleges and institutes the ability to tackle the complex questions of climate change and health, he said. The Global Health Institute (GHI), which Patz directs, is dedicated to “a whole of university” approach that will bring disciplines together to link and leverage resources to find lasting solutions for sustainable health for coming generations.

The ongoing Midwest heat wave, which has set more than 1,000 new temperature records, “is a reminder of how vulnerable our health is to extreme weather fluctuation,” Patz said. Although the number of reported deaths was in the single and double digits, that is not the real story. Those deaths are narrowly defined, looking only at heat factors, Patz said. Public health scientists have shown that heat waves increase “all-cause mortality,” so the few deaths identified as specifically heat-related miss the true number of fatalities linked to a heat wave. The 2003 European heat wave, for example, caused 70,000 additional deaths in 11 days; a 2010 Russian heat wave with a month of more than 100-degree temperatures resulted in 55,000 deaths.

A recent study found these mega heat waves are expected to increase five to 10 times in the next 40 years as the earth’s temperature continues to rise, Patz said. “While polar bears may go extinct as the ice cap disappears, the human species may also be threatened by such weather extremes.”

Increasing temperatures, a rising sea level and hydrologic extremes are the signature physical attributes of climate change, Patz said. They contribute to more air pollution, more pollen and more infectious diseases carried by insects or found in water. They also will affect water resources, food supplies and mental health.

The effects are stark:

  • Wisconsin’s average summer high temperature could rise by more than 2 percent by mid-century.
  • When it rains, it will pour, sending millions more gallons of sewage mixed with storm water into Lake Michigan.
  • The 1 billion people at risk for hunger today will double by 2050.

An added challenge is the large spatial or temporal distance between those who benefit from environmental change and those who bear the consequences, Patz said. The United States has been the largest user of carbon for 50 years. Although China now out-pollutes this country, the effect of U.S. emissions remains pervasive, and those emissions are six times more per person than the global average.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recognized that a large number of public health determinants lie outside the typical health arena and have adopted a “Health in All Policies” approach to encourage health organizations to work across sectors.

Team leader Aleia McCord moves bricks for the project.

Team leader Aleia McCord moves bricks for the project.

The Global Health Institute, one of two new priorities at the UW-Madison, could be the most integrative, comprehensive such institute in the country, Patz said. The university’s strength is its diversity, allowing the institute to approach food security, health systems, environmental concerns, green technology, low-carbon economy and sustainable development, economies and governments. “In essence, UW-Madison is well positioned to pursue the cross-sector approach now advocated by WHO,” he said.

Private support helps GHI fund projects that address climate change and health, including an effort by graduate students from veterinary medicine, environmental studies, engineering and agricultural and life sciences to build latrines in Uganda that feed into biogas digesters to produce clean cooking fuel and fertilizer. It shows how combining perspectives across disciplines can yield novel solutions with multiple benefits, Patz said.

The institute and the Center for Investigating Health Minds will co-sponsor a May 2013 forum in Madison with the Dalai Lama to discuss paths towards a healthier and happier society. After the Dalai Lama saw maps of carbon producing nations juxtaposed against those with the highest mortality rates from climate-sensitive diseases, he wondered why rich countries continued to pollute knowing how it harms other places, Patz said. “We’re not being compassionate,” he added.

“(GHI) will pursue equitable and sustainable global health without compromising opportunities for future generations to achieve the same levels of health,” Patz said. While the risks of climate change cut across sectors and are interdependent, so too are the solutions, he said. “This provides enormous opportunities. Look at the possible benefits if we changed our energy-consumptive way of living right now: cleaner air, more physically fit people and improved chances for a healthier next generation. ”