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ecoAmerica in Paris: How to Communicate about Climate Change in a Positive, Personal Way

By Peggy Knudson
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ecoAmerica’s Vice President of Development, Peggy Knudson, is in Paris for the climate talks (COP21). She will be sending dispatches from Paris all week, sharing firsthand observations and analysis, and interviewing climate and ecoAmerica leaders. Today Peggy shares insights about the interconnectedness of health and climate, how health leaders can drive climate progress, and lessons for higher education. Peggy’s interview with Dr. John Balbus, ecoAmerica leader and senior advisor to the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Services, contains communications insights that apply to higher ed: communicate about climate change and progress in a personal, positive way. 

At the last COP meeting, in Copenhagen in 2009, there was only one event focused on health and climate. This year’s COP21 in Paris has hosted several health events every day, with hundreds of thousands of people attending. More than 15 country delegations that include high-level health officials, including health ministers, are in Paris to discuss ways we can meet our climate challenge to improve our health.

This focus on health has not gone unnoticed by one ecoAmerican in Paris: John M. Balbus, a medical doctor with a Master’s in Public Health who serves as senior advisor to the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Services, within the National Institutes of Health. He is attending and presenting at health seminars that point out the critical links between health and climate, and the important role medical and health professionals can play in helping the public understand this climate link.

In the words of Dr. Balbus: “I think that the health community has very important voices within the United States. The more we can get rank-and-file members of the health community talking about these issues repeatedly and in a normal manner…I think that’s one of the best things we can do to overcome divisions about climate change.”

The effects of climate change on people’s health are evident in the U.S. and abroad. Warmer temperatures at higher altitudes are facilitating the spread of diseases like dengue and chikungunya disease. Heat stress is also a problem, both in countries whose delegates Balbus is meeting here in Paris, but also in the United States. “Especially in developing countries there are huge issues about health stresses and economic stresses,” Balbus says, “because people are just not able to work outdoors under extreme heat.”

But Balbus is optimistic that the momentum he is experiencing at COP21 bodes well for climate solutions in the near future. “There are all kinds of signs of hope here. I think that a number of countries have come to Paris absolutely committed to making reductions in their greenhouse gases, even in the absence of a binding agreement yet. The mood that the countries came here with and the determination that they have…hopefully we’ll see that turn into a good resolution at the end of next week.”

Balbus says that seeing Bill Gates and other donors who are in Paris for COP21 commit monetarily to climate solutions is very encouraging. He can cite a number of ways and examples that the United States can lead on this issue in the health sphere. For instance, as Balbus explains,

“A person like Jeff Thompson, the chief executive officer and chairman of the board of Gundersen Health Systems, whom I interviewed at a COP event on Wednesday, has taken a medium-sized health system and made it a net energy producer with 100% renewable energy. He decreased his carbon footprint by 70-80%. I think when it comes to the technological innovation in the health care sector and to delivering quality health care without a large carbon footprint, the U.S. has the technical know-how to really be leaders in this space.”

The most important thing health leaders can do now, says Balbus, is get the message out that climate and health are intertwined, and that there are things we can do both to adapt and to mitigate climate change.  

“We have to have this conversation about climate and health frequently,” Balbus says, “and it has to be a positive conversation. There are enormous amounts of benefits to our economy and to our health from taking really strong action on climate change. Not just incremental marginal action, but the kind of action we need to avert the most serious manifestations of climate change. And if we can get that message out, repeatedly, like ecoAmerica’s Climate for Health program and others are doing, so that it becomes a normal, socialized part of our discourse, that’s the best thing that we can do.”