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Climate and Human Health Connections Highlighted at Global Conference

Northwestern researchers to present during the world’s first Planetary Health Week in April

Julianne Beck | April 2, 2021
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Around the world, the connection between the health of the planet and human health is becoming increasingly clear. In recent months, natural disasters fueled by climate disruption have left many without power, water, or energy sources. In other locations, daily activities are generating harmful levels of air pollution. These types of events have resulted in dramatic and immediately visible consequences for many communities.

Researchers at Northwestern University and around the globe are working to clarify such cause-and-effect relationships for the benefit of all people, and to assess the viability of proposed solutions. At the same time, students are exploring opportunities to become leaders in this critical and burgeoning field.

This April, the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN), fellow members of the Planetary Health Alliance, and other interested parties will convene virtually for the Planetary Health Annual Meeting (PHAM): Bridging Communities to Achieve the Great Transition. PHAM takes place during the first ever Planetary Health Week from April 25 to 30, 2021. The event takes place during Earth Month, in an effort to gain more attention for this critical subject.

“The Planetary Health Meeting is a great opportunity for my group members to present their research at the intersection of climate and human health. My group members bring tools from the natural and environmental sciences to bear on public health challenges, and I am excited for them to present their research to this transdisciplinary and solutions-oriented gathering,” says Daniel E. Horton, Ph. D., Assistant Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Northwestern.

As a part of the meeting, three members of Horton’s research group will present their recent findings.

Ph.D. candidate Stacy Montgomery is scheduled to speak about her research into the health benefits of electrifying Chicago’s municipal vehicle fleet. A transition to electric municipal vehicles is underway in Chicago, and other cities are pursuing similar changes to reduce air pollution and the release of greenhouse gases. The research comes at a time when some 100,000 American citizens die prematurely each year as a result of air pollution exposure. For the study, Montgomery simulated the changes in atmospheric composition if the municipal fleet were electrified. Her findings cover the complex nature of the chemical reactions that occur in the atmosphere in urban environments, and indicate that the decision to electrify vehicles should consider air quality changes in addition to carbon dioxide emissions.

ISEN Ubben Program for Climate and Carbon Science postdoctoral scholar Ryan Harp, Ph.D., will speak about his research on climate’s influence on malaria in Mozambique. Malaria is an ever-present threat in the region and, due to the dependence of malaria-carrying mosquitoes on standing water throughout their life cycle, the connections between outbreaks and environmental conditions such as rainfall and temperature are documented. However, the relationship between climate and malaria prevalence on longer timescales is less understood. In his research, Harp found connections between local levels of malaria and regional climate conditions that he hopes will increase outbreak warning lead-time and inform public health planning locally and beyond.

In addition to the lightning talks, research led by Jordan Schnell, Ph.D., a former postdoctoral researcher in ISEN’s Ubben Program for Climate and Carbon Science will be shared. Schnell’s recent findings explore the air quality and public health benefits of EV adoption in China. Now a research scientist at NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Schnell’s work addresses the ability of EV’s to reduce carbon emissions and lessen the public health burden associated with transport pollution – outcomes that are dependent on both the type of transport electrified and the composition of China’s electric grid.

“The environmental changes climate scientists have observed, and have projected to occur, have real-world impacts, and those impacts often have public health consequences. Better understanding the challenges before us, preparing the public health community for these challenges, and exploring potentially lifesaving solutions are the exact sort of objectives that motivate the researchers in my group,” says Horton.

PHAM aims to assemble a growing community of researchers, practitioners, policymakers, entrepreneurs, students, and more, to design actionable strategies to address key issues from how we produce and consume food, manufacture products, and energy; to how we construct and live in our cities; to how we manage our natural landscapes and resources; and how we envision our place in the world, our relationship to Nature, and what it means to live a good life. A Planetary Health Festival will be held in conjunction with the meeting, which is co-hosted this year by the Planetary Health Alliance and the University of São Paulo, Brazil. Registration is now open.

For more detail on the research to be presented at this event, visit the following links:

Recent related research by Stacy Montgomery using a similar model to her current work-
Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) mortality and neighborhood characteristics in Chicago, Published Nov. 2020 in the Annals of Epidemiology

Dissertation research by Ryan Harp, Ph.D.-
Interannual Climate Variability and Malaria in Mozambique
Published Jan. 2021 in GeoHealth

Recent research by Daniel Horton, Ph.D. and Jordan Schnell, Ph.D.-
Potential for Electric Vehicle Adoption to Mitigate Extreme Air Quality Events in ChinaPublished Dec. 2020 in Earth’s Future