Climate’s profound influence on health is not a new story. Nearly 2,500 years ago, in a treatise titled On Airs, Waters, and Places, Hippocrates advised traveling physicians to “consider the seasons of the year, and what effects each of them produces.” He went on to expound upon the health implications of “the winds, the hot and the cold,” “the qualities of the waters,” rain and drought, each city’s unique setting in the landscape, and even whether its inhabitants were given to excess and passivity or discipline and courage. “These things one ought to consider most attentively,” he wrote.
Invoking the ancient physician’s wisdom, Harvard Public Health is launching in this issue of the magazine an occasional series on climate change and health, titled “Airs, Waters, and Places.” Environmental journalist David Levin’s debut article in the series, “Change in the Air,” examines how Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers are exploring the effects of warming air around the planet and proposing policies that could mitigate the resulting harms to human health.
The consummate holistic practitioner, Hippocrates was also the first to describe the concept of a “crisis” in medicine: the inflection point at which a disease either triumphs and kills the patient, or natural healing processes enable the sufferer to recover. Today, the human population is facing such a crisis writ large. The year 2016 was the warmest since modern recordkeeping began in 1880 and the third year in a row to set a new record for global average surface temperatures.
Health is the human face of our climate calamity. In the “Airs, Waters, and Places” series, we intend to explore the direct and indirect health consequences of climate change from many scientific perspectives. In doing so, we hope to bring not only insight but also policy solutions to a problem often contemplated with despair. Even the authoritative report from the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, replete with grim statistics and analyses, found a reason for optimism. “Tackling climate change,” it said, “could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.”