In many ways, the study of climate change is a search for impacts—a welter of them. Rises in air temperature spur wildlife migrations and the extreme heat spells trouble for medically fragile city dwellers. An open-fire cookstove in a hut in Malawi pollutes the air indoors for those who live there. Meanwhile, the estimated 3 billion such stoves in use worldwide make substantial daily contributions to global climate change.
The School of Public Health has had an oversized impact on both the science and the policy work of climate change. The School’s world-class research has spawned a broad community of graduates, who can be found around the world at the front lines of climate change policy work—including at the World Health Organization and the White House.
“It’s mind-boggling what we’ve done,” says associate adjunct professor Amy Kyle PhD ’96, MPH ’92, a research scientist in the School’s Environmental Health Sciences (EHS) Division. “Out of this little group of faculty, grads, and affiliates, we’re implementing so much. There is an extraordinary reach with this program. Our work is going to make the economy better, the environment better, and make life better for our children.”
“We’ve put the problem of household air pollution on the map, and it is recognized as one of most important public health issues in the world.”
In the early 1980s, Kirk R. Smith PhD ’77, MPH ’72 was a newly minted professor initiating the first studies anywhere on indoor air pollution in the developing world. His research began with the documentation of indoor air pollution in villages from solid-fuel cookstoves, which burn fuel such as wood or coal, and the health impacts on those who use them. Today Smith is widely acknowledged as a world leader on household air pollution and its impacts on health and climate change.
Clearing the air worldwide
Smith, along with other researchers and graduate students, documented health and social impacts like chronic lung disease, and the dangers facing women during fuel collection trips. They also developed tools for measuring pollution levels and rating cookstoves to help identify designs that emit less pollution.
Through the 1990s, as climate change assumed greater importance in the scientific world, Smith’s work grew to include documentation of cookstoves’ worldwide contribution to climate change.
Along the way, Smith and his colleagues developed the concept of “co-benefits,” the accepted term today for anti-pollution efforts that deliver both health and climate outcomes—a reduction in smoke from cookstoves, for example, improves health as it boosts overall outdoor air quality and reduces the impacts of climate change.
But despite his more than three decades in the field, Smith still itches to make more concrete improvements in his chosen field.
He cites the example of a woman in India, who was a subject in his first study, in 1981, of cookstoves and household air pollution. The woman was the first person in the world to wear a pollution monitor in her dwelling, while she cooked on a traditional cookstove. Smith keeps a photo of her—with the monitor around her waist—in his office.
Smith revisited the village last summer and looked the woman up. She remembered Smith and the study in which she had participated, and the two posed for photos together. But Smith saw the woman still cooking on the same pollution-spewing cookstove as when he met her 33 years ago.
“We’ve put the problem of household air pollution on the map, and it is recognized as one of most important public health issues in the world. It is sobering, however, that poor water and sanitation were recognized as a problem in the late 1800s, but still pose serious health risks in poor countries. We don’t want to be 120 years from now and have still not done anything about household air pollution,” says Smith. “At this point, I’m not so interested in finding yet another disease associated with it—the question is, what do we do about it that works?”
With that question in mind, Smith has been contributing to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports for many years. The IPCC is the leading international body for the assessment of climate change, operating under the auspices of the United Nations. It does not conduct research or monitor climate change data, but focuses on review and assessment of the most recent scientific, technical, and socioeconomic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change.
“It’s very complicated business, climate change,” says Smith. “The IPCC reports are the mother of all assessments; they are the most comprehensive review available anywhere. They are signed off on by 190 governments, ranging from Saudi Arabia to Cuba, with 800 scientists directly contributing—and that’s a remarkable achievement for humanity.”
Smith is a convening lead author for the health chapter of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, which was published in October 2014. In 2007, he was a contributing author to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC. The IPCC shared that year’s Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore.
Collaboration for California
Bringing a public health perspective to the study of climate change is a signature contribution of the School, both in the laboratory and in the offices and auditoriums of public policy.
Pulmonologist and professor in residence Dr. John R. Balmes came to Berkeley’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Health in 2000 as an interim administrator, from UC San Francisco, where he still serves as chief of the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at San Francisco General Hospital.
“I was recruited here to work part-time in an administrative role,” says Balmes, “but my colleagues looked at my work and said, ‘Oh, look—we have a pulmonary guy.’ It’s wonderful to be at Berkeley, because the campus has such strong programs in so many different areas. I’m collaborating with physical scientists, environmental engineers, and other health scientists—it’s that kind of cross-disciplinary collaborative research that I really enjoy here.”
Fourteen years later, Balmes still splits his time between Berkeley and UCSF. He works with Smith on the pulmonary impacts of indoor cookstove smoke, researches people’s vulnerability to illness from extreme heat days, and documents the health impacts of outdoor air pollution. He also helped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention develop an environmental health network for tracking climate-changerelated illnesses.
As a member of the state Air Resources Board, which regulates air quality, Balmes works to reduce air pollution in California. A key component of his role there, says Balmes, is implementing the mandate of AB 32, the state’s landmark climate change reduction law, which calls for a lowering of California’s climate change pollutant load to 1990 levels.
“It’s been very rewarding to serve on the Air Board,” says Balmes, a member since 2008. “While I’ve long been a strong advocate for stricter air quality standards, now I actually contribute to how the work gets done. I’ve been able to bring the public health perspective to the climate change side, and I think I’ve influenced them a bit. It’s fun to be working on the governing board of the most progressive climate change mitigation agency in the world.”
In addition to Balmes’s efforts, the School contributed research in support of AB 32, and faculty and graduate students have worked on its regulations and a broad range of follow-up legislation. This includes SB 535, a statute that provides for allocation of 25 percent of all revenues from auctions of emission credits in the cap-and-trade program to go to communities most affected by cumulative impacts of such emissons. Kyle and other School researchers worked on ways to measure and address cumulative impacts, in conjunction with many others.
School faculty and graduate students also helped develop CalEnviroScreen, an online assessment tool with which the state Environmental Protection Agency identifies the communities eligible for reimbursement under SB 535.
The School’s graduates have fanned out across the climate change landscape, taking the lessons learned here and applying them in myriad venues, both local and global.
Beth Altshuler MCP, MPH ’10, a former student of Kyle’s, had an epiphany when Kyle laid out the connections between epidemiological studies and the public policies that eventually sprang from them. Today Altshuler heads the public health practice at Raimi + Associates (R+A), a Berkeley-based urban planning firm that focuses on community health, sustainable neighborhoods, and social equity.
The firm infuses public health measures into civic planning processes. Altshuler’s clients include public sector agencies, such as cities, counties, and regional planning agencies. She works to ensure that clients’ plans include open space for play and exercise, and access to public transit, which both improves public health and lowers new neighborhoods’ carbon footprint.
“We try to do two key things. First, we try to foster transparency and better two-way communications between residents and government, making policy making more open and responsive to the community,” says Altshuler. “Second, we work to institutionalize health-oriented policies, as an important consideration for public policy overall.”
Altshuler and the R+A team are currently managing development of a general plan and climate action plan for the City of Coachella in California’s Riverside County. The work includes documentation of greenhouse gas production from city activities, development of emission reduction strategies, and calculations of the community health benefits of these plans. Altshuler meets regularly with the city’s Wellness Advisory Committee, and delivers progress reports at public meetings.
“I am a translator among health departments, planners, and community members,” says Altshuler. “I talk to a wide range of stakeholders, and this communication brings public health concepts into public policy arenas.”
Another alumna working to protect the environment and save lives is Sumi Mehta PhD ’02. A former student of Smith’s, she collaborated with him on the first estimates of the global burden of disease from household air pollution. She now serves as director of programs for the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, an international nonprofit that works to improve cookstove technologies and fuels. The organization was founded as a direct result of a visit by Smith to representatives of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and White House officials to lobby on the issue of cookstoves and their connection to public health and climate change. Impressed, Clinton decided to act—and through the United Nations Foundation she helped found the Global Alliance.
David Pennise PhD ’03, another former student of Smith’s, is a co-founder and technical director of Berkeley Air Monitoring Group, which provides field-based testing, monitoring, and evaluation of cookstoves and different types of fuels in developing nations. It operates throughout Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
Among its tools is the UCB Particle and Temperature Sensor, a portable, battery-operated data-logging particle monitor for indoor air pollution, which downloads its data directly into computers. The sensor and its software were developed by the Kirk Smith Research Group.
“Our graduates are all very capable people. As a mentor, I’ve taken advantage of their innate skills and channeled them into the work that we are all doing today.”
“We want to help create a clean, healthy, and sustainable world. It’s great that we have a chance to use science and heart to try to do good things for the world,” says Pennise. “And when you look at the issue of indoor air pollution and cookstoves, you have to start with Kirk Smith, the earliest and biggest of the folks documenting the problem.”
Smith, for his part, gives the credit to students and colleagues.
“Our graduates are all very capable people. As a mentor, I’ve taken advantage of their innate skills and channeled them into the work that we are all doing today,” says Smith. “This is what graduate education is supposed to be, putting students on the frontier of new research, and jumping into the deep end of the pool. We are a small school, but we have great colleagues, and we are doing good things.”