Message from the Director – Climate Change and Health

The decision in Washington last week to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, which was signed by 195 parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, is a step in the wrong direction, at a time when more, not less, is needed. Even the negotiators of the Agreement pointed out that collectively, the goals set by individual countries for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions were insufficient to avert adverse impacts of climate change. Moreover, nothing was binding, no penalties are imposed for non-compliance, and no commitments were made to assist the most vulnerable populations. Nevertheless, the mere fact of an Agreement that included nearly all nations was historic and symbolized a collective will to tackle this global issue.

In light of the UC Davis Environmental Health Sciences Center (EHSC) mission “to advance understanding of environmentally-induced disease and disability, and develop interventions that reduce harmful exposures or mitigate their effects on health”, over the last several months, the EHSC has moved towards a new thrust in Climate Change. With our expertise in epidemiology, toxicology, molecular biology, behavioral sciences, exposure sciences, informatics, bioengineering, and community-scientist partnerships, we are poised to play a pivotal role in addressing adaptation for human health and survival, and mitigation of the anthropogenic drivers of this epic global phenomenon. The commitment of California to a Climate Adaptation Strategy that was adopted in 2009 and is dynamically updated provides us with strong partners in our State agencies.

Initial EHSC projects have included: launching a state-funded study of heat effects in a diverse elderly population (Drs. Ko and Davis); co-sponsorship of a workshop with the California OEHHA (Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment) on domoic acid, a neurotoxin produced by harmful algal blooms in our coastal waters and taken up by seafood sources (e.g., clams) (Drs. Hertz-Picciotto, Lein, & Pessah); and a publication by several students of Dr. Lein, which describes two major classes of toxic chemicals associated with forest fires: flame retardant chemicals used to suppress the fires, and pesticides volatilized from the burning of vegetation (crops, grassland, forests) treated with these chemicals. Additionally, plans are in place for a cluster hire of five faculty in climate change adaptation and mitigation, initiated by Dr. Wexler, which includes one new faculty member in climate and health.

UC Davis is already home to a broad group of scientists and engineers with programs of research in energy efficiency, water resources, air quality, agriculture and food production. Specific concerns for Californians’ health include increasing temperatures on morbidity and mortality with longer and more intense heat waves, expansion of forest fires and resultant worsening of air quality, displacement of coastal populations from rising sea levels, water shortages from changing precipitation patterns and their effects on the Sierra-Nevada snowpack, and broad desertification, with negative consequences for our agricultural systems; and the emergence of new pathogens as a result of such major ecosystem changes. Our EHS Center has a major role to play in addressing these issues.

Irva Hertz-Picciotto, MPH, PhD, Director