Theories Tying Human Health, Climate Gain Ground Physician Paul Epstein has been trying to get people interested in climate change since the early 1990s. Given what would happen if he didn't treat a patient at the outset of an illness, he says, we have to act now to help the Earth — before it's too late.
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Theories Tying Human Health, Climate Gain Ground

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Theories Tying Human Health, Climate Gain Ground

Theories Tying Human Health, Climate Gain Ground

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Unidentified Woman #1: As you claim your baggage today...


JOANNE SILBERNER: Sixty-three-year-old Paul Epstein comes off a plane at LaGuardia Airport in New York City. He's wearing a dark-blue sports jacket, conservative tie and gentle smile.

PAUL EPSTEIN: Coffee, coffee and (unintelligible).

SILBERNER: That's the first part of the day?

EPSTEIN: Yes, I would like to get some coffee.

SILBERNER: He's a little rumpled after getting up at 5 a.m. in his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

EPSTEIN: Going to the U.N.

SILBERNER: He climbs into a taxi and heads into Manhattan.

EPSTEIN: And if I can find a place to go to have a cup of coffee near there, that would be ideal.

SILBERNER: His mission today and every day - making the point that climate change isn't just about melting ice and disappearing islands. Climate change is affecting people's health - heatstroke, allergies, starvation. In Mozambique, where he used to work as a physician...

EPSTEIN: The year 2000, they were hit with six weeks of flooding, three cyclones; storm intensity we know is related to climate change. There were images of women giving birth to children in the trees. All right. I'll take a receipt. So here's the world headquarters of the United Nations. It's always thrilling to be here in front of the U.N.

SILBERNER: Epstein grew up a few miles away from here in Greenwich Village. His dad was a doctor. His aunt, uncle and mother were politically active for liberal causes.

EPSTEIN: Actually, my mother was a lover of the United Nations, and all through the '50s, we sat by the radio. And as each - mostly African nations became independent and joined the U.N., it was thrilling.

SILBERNER: With a passion for social justice, he went to medical school. Then he went to Mozambique because they needed doctors there. When he came back, he settled in Massachusetts, treating the uninsured and the disadvantaged. He loved two things about being a doctor - taking care of patients and the ability of the body to heal itself. How, when the system goes off kilter, say an infection occurs, the body can often correct the problem. This fascination with self-correcting systems started him thinking about the Earth and its climate.

EPSTEIN: I remember reading it in the New York Times. And a light went off in my head.

SILBERNER: The article described how when things heat up, algae in the oceans can release a chemical into the air that causes clouds to form. And that, in turn, shades and cools the ocean.

EPSTEIN: And that gave me a sense of, okay, here's these feedback systems that are helping to stabilize the global environment that this little organism was part of.

SILBERNER: Epstein is at the U.N. today to help influence how international financial institutions support development.

SIEGEL: We are at the conference room of the Human Development Report with Dr. Epstein.

SILBERNER: Unidentified Speaker: Welcome. It's great, great to have you there...

SILBERNER: And solar power has health effects as well, like preventing lung disease by providing an alternative to household use of kerosene.

EPSTEIN: So we talked about all the problems and the health issues and how they affect individual health, but also the health of ecological systems.

SILBERNER: When Epstein first became worried about climate change, he was one of the very few people focusing on health. And he wasn't welcomed by many of the climate scientists. Now, he co-directs the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard University. People have finally started to listen.

EPSTEIN: This is not a hard sell anymore, I would say it was, you know, even up to a couple of years ago, where there's a lot of inertia and people don't want to believe. And now, there is a growing awareness. And people are seeing in their own daily experience that the weather has changed.

SILBERNER: Winters are getting colder. Summers are getting hotter. And there has been too much rainfall in some places and not enough in others. These days, Epstein is constantly consulting with governments, industries, insurers and policymakers. And he gets more invitations to speak than he can fulfill. Members of the Environmental Law Division of the New York City Bar Association have been waiting to hear him talk for two years. Now, he's on his way.

EPSTEIN: Through Wall Street, Wall Street and Broadway.

SILBERNER: There will be lawyers from private firms, advocacy groups, the Environmental Protection Agency, the state attorney general's office.

EPSTEIN: Eighteenth floor, Christine Fazio.

SILBERNER: Epstein is hoping he'll inspire the lawyers who represent industry to influence their companies on greenhouse gases.

EPSTEIN: Elevator is going to eighteenth.

SILBERNER: In a posh meeting room at the law firm of Carter, Ledyard and Milburn, he starts his well-practiced PowerPoint lecture.

EPSTEIN: So I'd like to say we have a 2080 problem and it's only 2007.

SILBERNER: He tells them climate change is happening faster than expected. Malaria is spreading, yellow fever and dengue fever are hitting higher up in the Andes Mountains. And in North America...

EPSTEIN: They were already seeing some Lyme in Canada. They were already seeing ticks in Maine.

SILBERNER: And his own group at Harvard has made an alarming discovery.

EPSTEIN: Carbon dioxide is stimulating plants to make more pollen. The stalk - this is ragweed. We did experiments at Harvard and they were repeated at the USDA. And the pollen goes up 60 percent.

SILBERNER: The lawyers listen intently. He builds to his final point. Improving the planet's health by cutting back on greenhouse gases doesn't have to hurt.

EPSTEIN: This can be good for public health, good for the security, good for the economy, and we hope it'll stabilize the climate. Thank you very much.


SILBERNER: Unidentified Man: Stand clear of the closing doors, please.

SILBERNER: Unidentified Woman #3: The next stop is...

SILBERNER: To the offices of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

EPSTEIN: I need to see Michael Northrop.

SILBERNER: Epstein is checking in with his old friend, Michael Northrop. Northrop's one of those powerful, behind-the-scenes guys. Over the years, he's been bringing together philanthropists, high-level government officials and investors to raise awareness about climate change. Yes, he says, we're getting there.

MICHAEL NORTHROP: Everywhere, everyone is concerned about global warming now. From admirals and generals to hunters and anglers, to doctors and religious leaders and business leaders, and investors in pension funds. And, you know, it's so much not just an environmental issue anymore. It has become such a much bigger thing.

SILBERNER: It's been a long day and a long 25 years. Time for beer now, not coffee. Back outside, Paul Epstein pauses a moment.

EPSTEIN: Reverend William Sloane Coffin said, and I slightly paraphrase, hope is the passion for the possible. And that's carrying me through what I'm doing.

SILBERNER: Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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