As climate change continues to alter the landscape or our planet, we are beginning to see large changes that affect our every-day lives. Massive wildfires have devastated large areas of the Americas, Australia, and Europe; sudden changes in precipitation and temperature have destroyed agricultural communities around the world; and melting glaciers and ice sheets have led to rising water levels that threaten coastal cities and islands. These are some of the most apparent effects of climate change, which have noticeable impacts on international economies, infrastructure, and wildlife. However, perhaps the most underappreciated aspect of these environmental repercussions is the impact they have on human health. With COP28 less than a week away, it is essential that public health be addressed in the context of climate change in order to strengthen public health systems and adapt to increasing incidences of human disease.
Climate change and cancer
In the United States, some of the largest signs of climate change have been the increasing number and intensity of wildfires that occur every year. Cities everywhere have experienced noticeable decreases in air quality, but the resulting smokey air may be more than an inconvenience. In fact, one study done at McGill University found that people who live closer to wildfires may have a higher risk of developing brain and lung cancer than those who do not (1). This would likely be due to the release of carcinogens and particulate matter from fires. This assumption also agrees with another study, which found that cancer deaths related to the presence of particulate matter have been increasing over the last 30 years (2). Researchers at the National Cancer Institute have been exploring the relationship between climate change and cancer as well, and have also noted that the hurricanes and storms that are strengthened by the effects of climate change may be wiping out the medical resources needed to treat cancer patients (3). Because of this, climate change may be increasing the incidence of cancer, as well as limiting our ability to treat it.
Climate change and infectious disease
Climate change has also had a significant influence on the movement and migration of animals and insects. As their ecosystems change, these organisms must relocate to survive, and when they do, they bring all sorts of pathogens with them. As a prime example, we can look at malaria. This disease is caused by a protozoan parasite which is transmitted by mosquitos. As climate change warms the planet, these pathogens can develop at faster rates (4). Additionally, there is also evidence that these warmer climates expand the habitable regions for mosquitos, and that climate-related disasters are creating more optimal conditions for mosquito reproduction (5). This aspect of climate change also affects viruses that are transmitted by mosquitos, and it isn’t the only example of how climate change creates a perfect storm for diseases to spread and persist.
Topics at COP28
As an urgent issue related to climate change, public health will be an important topic at the upcoming COP28 climate conference in Dubai. In fact, this year will be the first time that a COP conference incorporates a “health day” into its programming (6). These sessions will cover everything from public health adaptation to health finance and will be an essential part of the climate discussion. Hopefully, they will take us one step closer toward building public health resilience in a time of uncertainty around the world.
Author: Benjamin Shindel, PhD Candidate in MSE at Northwestern University
While the proceedings at the UN Climate Change Conference will undoubtedly focus on avoiding the global catastrophic risks that climate change threatens, another topic will compete for attention in 2023. Over the last few years, the risks associated with the development of artificial intelligence have risen to the forefront, reaching a fever pitch with the release of software from tech industry leaders that suggests humanity is on the cusp of developing “weakly general artificial intelligence”, or an AI that can rival the average human in its capabilities. OpenAI, Google, Meta, and others have developed AI capable of writing, locomotion, logical reasoning, and the interpretation of visual and auditory stimuli. Simultaneously, researchers around the world have made substantial progress in the application of narrow AI tools for specific scientific problems.
While AI offers tremendous promise in accelerating humanity’s timelines for solving grand challenges, including climate change, it also poses an existential risk to humanity. While there’s an ongoing debate as to the shape, likelihood, and severity of this risk, many of the world’s top AI scientists and thinkers have signed onto statements endorsing the need for action to study and avoid the risk of extinction from a superintelligent AI. The recent leadership crisis/coup at OpenAI, the current unquestionable vanguard of AI development serves as a particularly shocking example of the rift within the AI world between pushing forward AI capabilities and ensuring the safety of humanity.
This specific existential risk is challenging to describe in a short blog post, and it is even more challenging to convince the reader of its seriousness, since it can sound like science fiction, but I’ll try here:
While the effects of anthropogenic climate change are massive and have already begun, it is unlikely that they pose a true existential risk to the survival of humanity. It can be challenging to balance attention between a ~100% proposition of damaged ecosystems, enormous infrastructure costs, and issues of food insecurity, climate refugee crises, etc, that will develop over decades… against a ??% proposition of a world-destroying machine intelligence. There are parallels to be made to the rise of nuclear technology, where atomic fission posed a potentially unlimited clean energy source alongside the growing threat of mutually assured destruction pursued by the parties of the cold war.
At COP28, I expect that people will focus on the more pleasant or pedantic aspects of artificial intelligence. There will be discussions of the benefits of AI for scientific research in the fields of inquiry that can benefit climate and clean energy technology. AI has already proven invaluable in searching for more efficient materials for energy generation and storage, finding catalysts to synthesize clean fuels, and even in the genetic engineering of more resilient crops. There will also be discussions on the risks of AI in spreading misinformation about the climate, or perhaps for its benefits in combating that misinformation.
Unfortunately, these discussions will likely miss the crux of the debate. The growing power of AI will be immense and if we’re lucky, we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of some of the utopian benefits that it can provide for the world. It’s easy to imagine a world where the efficiency, automation, and optimization brought on by tools that augment our species’ intelligence can lead to rapid solutions for the major climate challenges of today. However, if we’re unlucky, the risks of AI could outweigh these benefits, perhaps dramatically so.
Author: Chia Chun Angela Liang
Affiliation: PhD candidate at UC Irvine, USA; Science and Technology Advisor at Open Dialogues International Foundation; Western Onboarding Chair, National Science Policy Network
With COP28 coming in 2 weeks, more information has been released from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) authority. As an early-career scientist representing the American Chemical Society and the Research and Independent Non-Governmental Organizations (RINGO) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), it is fascinating to attend COP28 compared to other COPs.
First of all, the COP28 leadership may present a conflict of interest to the UNFCCC itself. The president-designate of COP28, Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, runs the country's largest oil company, i.e., the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. With its plan to expand fossil fuels, it presents a conflict of interest with the main goal of the UNFCCC as stated in Article 2 Objective, which requires parties to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions to a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic disturbances to the climate system [ref 1]. As a scientist who understands the physical impacts of fossil fuels on our climate system [ref 2], one key point to watch this year at COP28 is how the COP presidency discusses the role of fossil fuels in the future. In addition to this, there are other key topics that are worth taking a look at as scientists:
As an early-career scientist, COPs might be overwhelming because there are many items and topics being discussed and negotiated at the same time. Besides, there are hundreds of side events, exhibitions, and possibly protests happening in both the Blue Zone and the Green Zone every day. There are many ways that an early-career scientist can make an impact, and hopefully this article will be helpful to those early-career researchers who are attending COP28 this year in Dubai, UAE.
By David Baldwin
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change calls for the stabilization of atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) to a level prevents further human interference with the climate. To meet this goal, it requires carbon sequestration: the capture and storage carbon back to either the environment or engineered system. That is where wetlands come in.
It is essential to appreciate the carbon sequestration capabilities of wetlands, even in urban settings. These ecosystems, whether in natural or constructed forms, possess a remarkable ability to lock away atmospheric carbon. Through photosynthesis, the wetland plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it through a series of molecular processes into cellulose and other carbon compounds in plants, effectively removing excess carbon from the atmosphere. Moreover, wetlands, by their waterlogged nature, inhibit the decomposition, of organic matter, allowing the carbon of the organic matter to accumulate in the form of peat-rich soils. This carbon storage is, in essence, an effective mitigation strategy against climate change. It's akin to a vault or carbon, securely tucked away from the atmosphere for centuries.
The protection of wetlands holds significant implications for Earth's natural carbon cycles, as a substantial proportion of the planet's carbon resides within wetland soils. For example, peatlands in tropical regions house an impressive carbon pool exceeding 600 petagrams (PgC), or billion metric tons, making them some of the world's largest carbon reserves. This is comparable to the carbon stored in global forest biomass. In the continental U.S., wetlands a reservoir amounting to 13.5 billion PgC according to the Global Change Research Program
Carbon comes in many forms, and it is not just the abundant carbon dioxide that wetlands can sequester. Methane is a hydrogen and carbon compound about 25 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. Wetlands, however, have a fascinating dual role concerning methane. While they can be sources of methane due to anaerobic (low oxygen) conditions in waterlogged soils, they are also sinks: a natural mechanism for nutrient storage. Microorganisms within wetlands, in a remarkable act of ecological balance, consume much of the methane they produce, preventing its release into the atmosphere. This helps in keeping a check on methane levels and mitigating its impact on global warming.
I now want to turn to what we can do with all this information. Wetlands are a recurring topic of discussion at COP events. During COP 28, a significant focal point in the discourse on water quality and access is the enhancement of urban water resilience. I eagerly anticipate engaging in productive conversations regarding the contribution of wetlands to this critical issue.
Urban wetlands are clear player in reaching the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 13: Climate Action. I believe they are also a powerhouse in environmental justice and can aid in our journey toward reducing inequality and sustainable communities: Goals 10 and 11. These ecosystems, natural or engineered, offer a beacon of hope, especially for marginalized communities facing disproportionate environmental challenges. Minoritized groups often find themselves residing in areas more vulnerable to flooding and lacking the necessary resources for recovery. Wetlands play a pivotal role in maintaining water quality, both within their boundaries and downstream. Their unique hydrological and biological characteristics (the soil, plants, and flow of water) allow them to absorb excess nutrients and filter out various contaminants. This purification capacity ensures that water, as it flows through wetlands, emerges cleaner and less burdened by harmful substances. In this manner, wetlands play a fundamental role in mitigating the detrimental impacts of chemical pollution, thus preserving the health of aquatic ecosystems, and safeguarding the surrounding communities.
In a similar process, a process called sedimentation relies on the slow-moving nature of water, allowing nutrient-rich particulate matter sediments to settle. As water flows through the wetland, these sediments are captured and retained, preventing their downstream transport. Additionally, aquatic plants within wetlands serve as biological sponges, absorbing nutrients from the water. Through a process known as nutrient assimilation, these plants incorporate nitrogen and phosphorus into their tissues, effectively removing excess nutrients from the ecosystem. A healthy wetland has nutrient rich sediment, and nutrient poor water, and a healthy environment promotes a healthy community.
Protecting wetlands is not just a matter of ecological importance; it's a matter of justice and equity in our pursuit of sustainability.