Does Addressing Climate Change Have Benefits?

Last week’s Global Hot Spots lecture by Jonathan Patz drew a full audience eager to understand the financial and human benefits to addressing climate change.

Jonathan Patz, MD, MPP, directs Global Environmental Health at UW–Madison and is president of the International Association of Ecology and Health. He spoke about “Climate Change and Health: Avoiding Crises while Taking Global Opportunities” to a group of over 90 alumni, faculty, and members of the community as part of the ongoing Global Hotspots Lecture Series, a program of the Wisconsin Alumni Association and the Division of International Studies.

Patz began his lecture by focusing on the existing proof of climate change. He confirmed that climate change was undeniable and held huge implications for the future of our planet. “Reading the news, it’s confusing and sometimes hard to believe in global warming – some say it’s all made up – but it is happening and at an alarming rate,” he said.

Next, Patz focused on the health concerns that have emerged as a result of high temperatures, rising sea levels, and extremes of hydraulic cycle [more severe weather patterns], which can all be attributed to climate change. These include: the urban heat island effect [stagnant air and pollution in cities]; air pollution and allergens; the spread of insects and rodent-borne infectious disease and the spread of water-borne diseases because of drought, runoff, and limited water supplies; the implications of the limited water resources and food supplies; and the effects these problems have on mental health and the rise of environmental refugees.

Finally, Patz’s lecture addressed the ethics of climate change. Patz explained that although the climate change is largely the result of a ‘way of life’ in the developed world, its effects could and would be felt most strongly in the underdeveloped world. To illustrate his point about responsibility, Patz drew a comparison between climate change and second hand smoke: “… what legitimized the smoking ban was not that people smoked and harmed themselves, but that the smoke could harm other innocent people – what’s the difference with climate change? If our lifestyle is responsible for harming other innocent people, don’t we have a moral responsibility to address it?”

Dr. Patz closed his lecture by discussing the opportunities that exist in addressing climate change both for our health and for our pockets. In a study of 11 Midwest cities where the benefit of reducing car trips in urban environments that were less than two miles was calculated, Patz and others showed that we could save billions of dollars in health care costs, save hundreds of lives, and reduce hospital visits by the thousands.

“The benefits of addressing climate change largely outweigh the costs,” he concluded.

By Nina Gehan