UCSF Speaker Series on Climate Change and Health

This Spring, the UCSF School of Medicine Office of Population Health and Health Equity hosted a virtual speaker series to highlight the launch of the Center for Climate, Health and Equity. Under the direction of founding co-directors, Dr. Sheri Weiser and Dr. Arianne Teherani, the Center aims to harness the expertise and leadership of the health sector to drive climate action that safeguards health through research, education, sustainable health system design, and policy.

The series was co-chaired by Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, UCSF Vice Dean for Population Health and Health Equity, and Dr. Sheri Weiser. They launched the series by noting that health injustice and climate change are deeply intertwined given that both disproportionately affect vulnerable and marginalized communities, and both share the root causes of unequal distribution of power and resources.

Each of the three 90-minute sessions featured an array of distinguished speakers who addressed the myriad ways the changing climate intersects with health to impact communities throughout California, as well as what needs to be done to address health and climate inequities.

During Session 1: The Age of Big Wildfires: Confronting an Urgent Health Threat, speakers explained how a history of wildfire suppression and climate change have brought California to its current wildfire crisis, and addressed the human toll of unprecedented wildfire seasons like that of 2020, measured in deaths, burns, respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, and chronic toxic exposures among both adults and children. Stressing that climate solutions are health solutions, speakers delineated promising practices to improve forest health and highlighted how government can advance environmental justice by reducing emissions, lowering air pollution, and funding clean air centers. The session concluded with remarks from Dr. Talmadge King, Dean of the UCSF School of Medicine, who reinforced the importance of advocacy for the health of populations facing a disproportionate share of climate change’s health risks, and the need to institutionalize and expand climate action efforts. 

In Session 2: Converging Threats, Cascading Health Risks: Climate Change, Food Security, and Migration, speakers explained how climate-driven ecological determinants – air quality, temperature, and access to water and land – shape health much like social determinants do, driving food insecurity and forcing migration on a global scale. In Northern California, a regional “hot spot,” speakers highlighted that we are experiencing hotter, drier summers and delayed wet seasons that threaten local agriculture. Speakers called out the food production system as the single largest driver of global environmental change, noting that fundamental shifts at the population and community levels will be needed to ensure future equitable access to land, water, clean air, and health.

Speakers featured during Session 3: Now, More Than Ever: Movement Building for Climate, Racial, and Health Justice emphasized how climate change exacerbates racial and health injustice and stressed the imperative to address the structural oppression that drives these inequities. They identified the disproportionate burden borne by communities of color with regard to air and other environmental pollution exposures, necessitating climate change solutions that are equitably distributed, designed, and implemented. Community-led approaches designed to build capacity and amplify voices within and among communities of color – harnessing their inherent power and lived experiences – hold tremendous promise. Speakers called for local, state, and federal solutions designed to simultaneously address climate, health, and equity, like urban greening initiatives, walking and biking transportation policies, and robust investment in public health. Dr. Dan Lowenstein, UCSF Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, shared examples of how UCSF is working toward systemic solutions, citing examples of research and operational collaborations to advance racial and environmental justice, and to strengthen partnerships in these areas with local community members and organizations.

The Center for Climate, Health and Equity is planning a formal launch event in fall 2021. In the meantime, you can view the speaker series event recordings online at the Climate Change and Health 2021 Speaker Series webpage, and stay up  to date by registering to receive the UCSF Climate Health Newsletter.