Feeling the Heat at the White House Summit on Climate and Health
Although I’ve worked in Washington D.C. at the national level for years, a White House invitation still holds the thrill of scoring the quintessential “golden ticket.” While I refrained from broadcasting far and wide that my job would place me at the first-ever White House Summit on Climate and Health this last Tuesday, my kids were instructed (okay, encouraged) to tune in to the live webcast link and listen in to “mommy’s job” while home enjoying the first week of summer break under grandmom’s care.
The big day dawned on my mother’s 79th birthday. As I was meeting with the nation’s leading health and medical professionals, academics, and national nonprofit heads, the day’s plan on the home front included a nice walk to the library with a celebratory stop for birthday ice cream sundaes at a favorite local shop. Alas, morning weather reports projected near record-setting high temperatures and included the issuance of a severe heat advisory warning the sick, elderly, and children to stay indoors. With temperatures too dangerous for my mother to navigate, and our one car deployed elsewhere that day, the birthday ice cream and library walk were sadly off. I committed to making up for the canceled plans upon my return home.
A few hours later across the river in D.C., I found myself sweltering in the high humidity as I joined a long line of colleagues and health experts waiting to clear security for the Summit. Folks in the capitol still suit up, and the navy, black, and grey formalwear did a poor job of deflecting the blazing summer sun. At the same time, across the world, reports were streaming in about a rising death toll in Pakistan where over 800 people had already lost their lives from oppressive heat and an overloaded power grid.
As the Summit commenced with the airing of a video message from President Obama, I was still cooling off when his opening statement, “Climate change is something we increasingly see and feel as we step out our front doors,” struck me as entirely relevant – from the shifting birthday celebrations at my own front door, to battling the heat at the doorstep of the White House itself, to the suffering of our global community without the means to escape the heat or to change plans to accommodate it. President Obama got it right that the physical signs of a warming planet are providing concrete, personal evidence that the science is settled. And as Surgeon General Vivek Murthy noted, the question on the table now is what can we do about it. How can health leaders play a role in communicating with the public to help them understand the cost to their health of inaction, and the tremendous health benefits that can begin tomorrow if we move swiftly to clean, healthier energy sources?
This week’s White House Summit on Climate and Health, in tandem with the Pope’s encyclical and the release of the new Lancet Commission Report, “2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change: Policy Responses to Protect Public Health,” signified a giant leap forward in drawing greater attention to the health cost of climate change impacts, and in highlighting the need for the public health community to play a much bigger role in translating those impacts to the public. As Brian Deese, Senior Adviser to the President, stated in his opening remarks, “What we really want out of this gathering is an ongoing dialogue that happens within medical schools, at kitchen tables, research labs, board rooms, and the like.” Later that day, I can attest that the kitchen table in my home was an active spot for climate and health conversations that had more to do with day-to-day life than my day job.
On the professional front, I look forward to continuing the discussion and supporting the leadership of national health experts stepping up through the Climate for Health network to engage their peers and the public on what we can do to protect lives and promote health, and to ensure that grandkids and their grandparents can still safely celebrate a summer birthday with a walk to the ice cream shop.