BU-Harvard research coordinating center hosts inaugural climate and health conference

Keynote speakers Vanessa Kerry (front left), WHO director-general special envoy for climate change and health, and Mary B. Rice (center), director of the BIDMC Institute for Lung Health, with CAFÉ’s Francesca Dominici (front right), Amruta Nori-Sarma (back left), and Gregory Wellenius (back right).
Keynote speakers Vanessa Kerry (front left), WHO director-general special envoy for climate change and health, and Mary B. Rice (center), director of the BIDMC Institute for Lung Health, with CAFÉ’s Francesca Dominici (front right), Amruta Nori-Sarma (back left), and Gregory Wellenius (back right).

This article is republished from Boston University School of Public Health.

February 21, 2024—Throughout the inaugural BUSPH-HSPH CAFÉ Climate and Health Conference, thought to be one of the largest climate and health conferences ever held with over 1,300 participants, a diverse slate of academics, policymakers, and industry representatives were urged to hold themselves accountable for ensuring the long-term wellbeing of people affected by climate change.

“Every single one of us has a role,” said keynote speaker Vanessa Kerry, the director-general special envoy for climate change and health at the World Health Organization and a critical care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. “The climate crisis is a health crisis at the end of the day. And what we are really discovering is that there is not an aspect of human health that is not being impacted by climate change.”

Kerry, who also teaches at Harvard Medical School and serves as the CEO of Seed Global Health, a nonprofit training healthcare workers in countries facing critical shortages, said she was not trying to be alarmist by reminding conference attendees of the dire consequences of inaction, including worsening health inequities and the erosion of progress towards the United Nation’s sustainable development goals. “I say this profoundly pragmatically because if we can acknowledge the problem, then we can start to get very realistic about the solutions to solve it. Because we have all the tools, we can solve this problem if we choose to.”

The three-day virtual conference on February 5-7 featured more than 70 sessions dedicated to research and practice at the nexus of climate and health, including daily keynote speakers, roundtable discussions, panels, workshops, networking, and poster presentations. Nearly 200 speakers and 80 poster presenters contributed, representing not only academia but also a range of other key stakeholders in federal, state, and municipal government agencies, community- and non-governmental organizations, and private foundations and industry. Approximately 25 percent of attendees joined from abroad.

“A driving force behind CAFÉ has always been to enable the community of practice around climate change and health, provide needed resources to new investigators in this space, and cross disciplinary silos to get folks talking with each other about creative ways to address the impacts that climate change has on health,” says Amruta Nori-Sarma, an assistant professor of environmental health and one of BUSPH-HSPH CAFÉ’s three principal investigators with Gregory Wellenius, professor of environmental health, and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Francesca Dominici, Clarence James Gamble Professor of Biostatistics, Population, and Data Science.

As the nation’s first and only Climate Change and Health Research Coordinating Center, BUSPH-HSPH CAFÉ aims to Convene, Accelerate, Foster, and Expand a global network of emerging and established researchers equipped with the knowledge and tools to advance climate and health scholarship and deliver solutions—a community of practice.

When BUSPH and the Harvard Chan School successfully applied for funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to start CAFÉ last year, an annual conference was proposed as one way to further these aims, says Nori-Sarma. The conference’s virtual format and conversation topics then evolved organically from the suggestions of CAFÉ’s growing community of practice, she says.

Designed to engage both veterans and newcomers to climate and health scholarship, the conference’s sessions ranged from an introduction to CAFÉ and its upcoming training, pilot grant, and mentorship opportunities to a forum hosted by the NYC Health Department that sought to engage the CAFÉ community of practice in setting safe indoor temperature standards.

A recurring theme of the conference was welcoming to the community of practice as many people as possible from as many disciplines as possible. During the opening keynote address, Rick Woychik, the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and chair of the NIH Climate and Health Initiative executive committee, emphasized that meeting the complex threats to health posed by climate change will require unprecedented interdisciplinary collaboration. Woychik’s fellow NIH directors from the Fogarty International Center, National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, National Institute of Mental Health, and National Institute of Nursing Research echoed his call for an all-hands-on-deck response and elaborated on NIH’s portfolio of programs such as CAFÉ that are intended to foster collaboration, community engagement, and innovative research.

María Belén Power, undersecretary of environmental justice & equity in Governor Maura Healey’s administration and the conference’s final keynote speaker, joined Woychik, Kerry, and other speakers in highlighting that the people and countries with the smallest carbon footprints, who have contributed the least to climate change, are the most likely to suffer its health consequences. In several questions posed to conference speakers, attendees themselves acknowledged the devastating and disproportionate effects of climate change on the Global South and other historically marginalized populations. A handful of panels were dedicated to discussions concerning these groups, such as a session on climate preparedness for medically vulnerable populations with Nori-Sarma.

The conference offered a variety of workshops to empower attendees to better document, characterize, and counter a variety of climate-related heath risks. These sessions covered environmental justice, community-engaged research, climate vulnerability mapping, data collection gaps, data-informed decision making, and data sharing opportunities, such as Harvard’s Dataverse, a free online research data repository, and NIH’s Climate and Health Outcomes Research Data Systems (CHORDS), data infrastructure for environmental exposures and patient-centered outcomes research.

The conference also featured several advocacy-focused sessions, including one centering youth and another centering healthcare professionals. Physicians, a group well-represented at the conference, invited their peers to reflect on how climate change affects their patients.

During an educational demo featuring introductory lectures on climate and health research for example, Gaurab Basu, a primary care physician and the director of education and policy at Harvard Chan School’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (C-CHANGE), shared the story of one of his own patients, a 30-year-old former farmer and immigrant from Central America.

Suddenly plagued by headaches and struggling to breathe, the otherwise healthy man was diagnosed with kidney failure. His organ damage likely accumulated slowly over time, said Basu, the result of chronic dehydration from years laboring in the hot sun. Mesoamerican nephropathy, as the disease is also known, has become an epidemic among agricultural workers in Central America, such as Basu’s patient, and evidence from BUSPH research shows a link between the epidemic and occupational heat exposure.

Storytelling can clarify the human toll of climate change and generate urgency, said Basu, and he encouraged physicians and other participants to explore opportunities for advocacy after departing the conference.

“I think we achieved and even surpassed what we planned on doing,” said Nori-Sarma, reflecting on the event. “[The team] looks forward to capitalizing on the momentum from the conference to learn more from the community about what would help them accelerate their research and translation efforts. We have so many exciting initiatives that are on deck with CAFÉ.”

Recordings from the conference will soon be available to attendees via the Whova event platform, and select sessions, such as the keynotes, will be accessible to the public via CAFÉ’s website.

Megan Jones

Photo by Hannah Kim, courtesy of BUSPH