June 8, 2017

Following the June 1, 2017 announcement by President Trump that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accord, in which the United States had pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and commit up to $3 billion in aid for poorer countries by 2020, climate scientists and public health experts the world over reacted with dismay. UMD School of Public Health leaders weigh in here. 

Boris Lushniak
Dean and Professor

It was quite disappointing to see us back away from an international agreement where we were taking a pathway together to address the urgent, moral issue of climate change. Now more than ever, we need to cherish our planet.

We joined only two other nations that are not part of this agreement. It is a bad sign that we have backed away. We know as public health people that we need to have an environment that is clean and that sustains life to its highest ability. We have always looked at the environment through the lens of environmental health. You can go back to the 1700s -- Percival Pott identified that the dirty environments that London chimney sweeps were exposed to led to cancer. In more recent decades, awareness grew through Earth Day and the environmental movement that took off in the 1970s that the health of our environment has enormous implications on population health.

I am enthusiastic that many state governors have come out to say that they will follow this treaty. Hearing the news also made me feel more responsible too, since my nation is backing away. It makes me as an individual more determined to take care of our planet.

As a School of Public Health, our job is to educate. We need to educate our students about climate change, environmental health and the interconnected nature of our planet. We have courses focused on the relationship between climate change and health, including a focus on how climate is impacting infectious disease prevalence, and emergency preparedness related to climate change resilience among others.

We also need to lead by example with our lifestyle –  we model healthy eating and active living, but also we need to go beyond that to practice what we preach about our environment. I am proud that UMD has signed onto the “We Are Still In” statement that expresses our commitment to climate action and our goal to meet carbon neutrality by 2050.

We should be politically active. As dean, I am not about being partisan, but I think political activism is critical. Politics deals with policies and those policies have impacts on the public health – both positive and negative. We should be able to fight against policies that have negative impacts. 

Devon Payne-Sturges
Assistant Professor, Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health

I was not surprised about this withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, because Trump campaigned on that and he did it. It showed that he and his people are not interested in what is in the agreement or what it involves. Everything is voluntary and each country goes back home and sets its own goals. It is not about people telling others what to do. The decision is a snub and shows how he is positioning himself against the idea of a global community. That was my first reaction.

However, we need to stay the course in terms of making decisions about reducing carbon emissions. You see the rest of the world doing this, but also within the US, individual states and mayors are making their own pledges too. It is going to happen anyway, without the White House, without the federal government. That worries me though because it sets up the dynamic that you don’t need the federal government involved in issues like this. And you really do need the contribution from the federal government, it is a collective response, and there is a role for the federal government to play. Michael Bloomberg can pledge funds to the UN to make up for the US contribution, but that doesn’t help to bridge the divide and get people to solve this together.

Sacoby Wilson
Associate Professor, Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health

This decision undermines the progress that we have made nationally and internationally on climate change. As the largest producer of greenhouse gases, the United States needs to be present, be accountable and to lead, but Trump shows he doesn’t want to lead on this very important issue.

There are missed opportunities with the climate economy. There are more green jobs produced now than jobs with gas and coal industries. We should be transitioning to renewables and providing jobs in coal country that are green – like solar, like wind and other jobs that do not produce greenhouse gases. There is also less impact on workers, too. These jobs are good for public health, environmental health, and economic health. Extractive industries are negatively impacting many communities across the country. If we are able to transition away from dirty fuels, it will benefit those communities as well.

Climate change leads to sea level rise, which impacts coastal communities through more flooding, zoonotic diseases, and water borne diseases. More frequent and intense hurricanes and tornadoes, along with droughts in some places and floods in others, will impact local economies and health. Combustion by-products from burning fossil fuels can cause asthma, cancer, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, birth defects, infant mortality, and premature death.

The leadership of mayors and governors has been amazing. Public health practitioners and advocates should partner with mayors and other local officials from across the US. We can work in partnership with local communities and municipalities to create climate action plans. We should have state, city and even neighborhood level climate action plans. We can help communities become more resilient. Focus on modifying our built infrastructure and on smart growth. We must be more prepared for major rain events, flooding, and heat waves. Heat waves are hell for the poor and the elderly. We have to protect the most vulnerable among us.

Debbie Weinstein
Associate Clinical Professor, Md. Institute for Applied Environmental Health CONSERVE Project Manager

We are thinking about this decision in terms of the effects of climate variability on water quantity and quality. This variability is forcing us to rethink our agricultural water security and the sustainable production of our food supply. As the climate gets warmer and warmer, and there is less water as a result, it is certain that our groundwater is going to continually deplete. The current situation of water shortage does not allow for enough food production for the growing population.  Recent data show that demand for water will exceed global availability by 40%. This means that finding alternative water sources, including low quality water, such as treated or semi-treated wastewater, will be essential for growing crops. But, if pathogens that contaminate these water sources are not treated or filtered out, how are we going to mitigate their impact and protect public health? That is our focus and challenge: to develop cost-effective solutions to generate sufficient, healthy and environmentally responsible food supplies.

In addition, as temperatures rise and bodies of water will get warmer, there is going to be significant increases in microbial contaminants that thrive in these conditions, As an example, increases in frequency of extreme heat and precipitation events that are projected to grow under warming climate in regions near the Chesapeake will result inadditional runoff from poultry concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), agricultural fields and septic systems that not only contaminates the Chesapeake Bay with important human pathogens and their subsequent growth, but also introduces excessive nutrients that can contribute to the growth of Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs). Consequently, potential exposures to HABs and waterborne pathogens such asSalmonella spp. and Vibrio spp. that occurs through recreational and occupational activities including swimming and fishing at the Bay could intensify in the near future in response to climate change.


Related Links

Wash Post: Trump says goodbye to the Paris climate agreement. Here’s what that means.

NIH-NIEHS: Health Impacts of Climate Change

CDC: Climate Effects on Health

Maryland Climate and Health Report Identifies State's Vulnerabilities to Climate Change