This article originally appeared in the Emory News Center on December 2nd, 2022.
A university-wide initiative formally launching this month will strengthen and support Emory’s academic response to the global climate crisis.
The Emory Climate Research Initiative, established by Provost Ravi Bellamkonda, draws together faculty with diverse expertise to advance climate-related research and curricula across the institution, focusing on areas where Emory can make unique contributions to humanity’s efforts to understand and mitigate the impacts of climate change.
“The aim of the new initiative is to help Emory as an academic community rise to the opportunity and confront the challenges of our current moment — to lead in climate change research and teaching nationally as well as serving as a regional anchor institution for our shared response to climate change,” Bellamkonda says.
“Emory has immense potential as a research leader and a living laboratory for climate solutions that integrate scholarly excellence and innovation,” he explains. “Our community has already made substantial contributions in this field, particularly in understanding human health impacts and environmental justice issues, and I believe we are well-positioned to accelerate our progress going forward.”
The seeds for the new initiative were planted in October 2021, when the provost convened faculty representatives from across Emory’s academic units to review the university’s accomplishments in climate change research, teaching, outreach and practice to date.
Building on this work, the faculty team was formally charged in October 2022 with leading a three-year initiative aimed at focusing its research and educational efforts in this critical arena to establish the university as a national leader in climate change scholarship, solutions and impact. With an advisory group including Senior Vice President for Research Deborah Bruner and the deans of Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing and Rollins School of Public Health, the team will begin its work at a planning retreat Dec. 8.
As it gets underway, the initiative will seek to expand faculty involvement in climate-related research, teaching and action, while collaborating with other Emory teams working on sustainability and climate issues, Bruner notes.
“We hope to engage as many Emory researchers as possible,” she says. “While Emory has climate-change strengths in key academic areas, such as the intersection of public health and climate, I encourage any faculty member or student who wants to become involved to do so. Together, we can develop solutions and co-produce knowledge across disciplines — knowledge that we hope will save lives.”
Research synergies: Climate change and human health
A key area of focus for the new initiative will be research at the broad intersection of human health and climate. Emory is uniquely equipped to lead nationally and even globally in this rapidly accelerating field, according to Dani Fallin, the James W. Curran Dean of Public Health at the Rollins School of Public Health (RSPH).
“Our location and partnerships across Atlanta, the nation and the world, and our expertise in population and environmental health, make us a natural fit to focus on the public health impacts of climate change,” Fallin says. “Emory is an ideal institution to tackle hands-on research and teaching that respond meaningfully to the current climate crisis and that confront its effects on health, both here at home and globally. The provost’s initiative will help solidify our leadership in this area and provide meaningful support for continued discoveries in this field.”
Carla Freeman, interim dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences, notes that Emory’s strengths across the sciences, including in artificial intelligence (AI), will bring additional expertise and insight to the provost’s initiative.
“We have a deep bench when it comes to studying the impacts of climate change,” she says. “From basic science and the social sciences to AI and other emerging technologies, our faculty experts are contributing to the health and well-being of populations around the world and here at home. They are already tackling climate-related health disparities and urgent questions of environmental justice. All we need now is to bring them together and provide them with increased support.”
Among the initiative’s inaugural faculty members with expertise in the intersection between public health and climate change are:
Gangarosa Distinguished Professor and chair of the Gangarosa Department of Environment Health at RSPH
An expert on the potential impacts of global climate change on public health, Liu researches the effect of climate change on air quality and human health using remote sensing technologies and model simulations. He also studies the health implications of extreme heat, wildfires and ambient air pollution.
Liu’s research has been funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Health Effects Institute and the World Health Organization. One of his recent modeling simulations found that smoke-related asthma events could increase at a rate of 15.1 emergency department visits per 10,000 persons in the western United States by the 2050s. By showing the potential future health impacts of climate-induced wildfire activity, Liu hopes to offer tools for climate change mitigation and adaptation planning.
Assistant professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine and in the Gangarosa Department of Environmental Health at RSPH
Phillipsborn works at the juncture of climate change and child health disparities, and her expertise includes research in global child health, leadership in Emory’s Child Health and Mortality Prevention Surveillance (CHAMPS) network, and pediatric care, outreach and education.
One of Philipsborn’s recent publications noted that despite the urgency of the climate crisis and mounting evidence linking climate change to child health harms, pediatricians still do not discuss or engage these issues during patient visits. How can faculty educate medical residents to be better prepared for climate change’s health effects — and to have those conversations with patients? Philipsborn also directs Emory’s Resilience and Sustainability Collaboratory and is a founder of Georgia Clinicians for Climate Action.
Associate professor of environmental sciences at Emory College of Arts and Sciences with a joint appointment in the Gangarosa Department of Environmental Health at RSPH
An interdisciplinary environmental researcher, Saikawa specializes in the source and magnitude of emissions linked to air pollution, ozone depletion and climate change, as well as the societal and policy-related implications of these emissions. Her research is funded by NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Saikawa’s latest work examines global soil nitrous oxide emissions and seeks to quantify the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions on regional air quality and health in China, Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan, among other regions. Several years ago, her discovery of lead contamination in urban soils in Atlanta’s Westside neighborhood gave rise to widespread community advocacy and political action, focused on the dangers of lead exposure and the need to provide a safe environment for all children.
Associate professor in the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing and an affiliated faculty member in the Gangarosa Department of Environmental Health at RSPH
Thompson develops interventions to promote and monitor gas stoves for the Household Air Pollution Intervention Network.
Her latest research includes a randomized trial of a gas stove and liquefied petroleum gas fuel in 3,200 households in India, Guatemala, Peru and Rwanda. The study aims to assess the health impacts of these fuels on children, including low birth weight, stunting, pneumonia and early childhood development. It is well known that increasing the use of cleaner fuels such as liquefied petroleum gas and abandoning solid fuels is key to reducing household air pollution and improving health in low-income countries. Thompson’s work acknowledges the challenges inherent in such a transition, which will require substantial behavior change; and she supports developing real-world solutions grounded in practice.
An expert in global and environmental health as well as implementation science and vulnerable populations, Thompson worked for 18 years as a nurse and family practitioner at La Clinica de la Raza, a community clinic serving Spanish-speaking low-income patients in Oakland, California.
Building on existing strengths and recent actions
The initiative will build on Emory’s robust history of student, faculty and staff engagement in sustainability and environmental advocacy, as well as from recent carbon-reduction commitments made at the executive level.
As early as 2004, Emory leaders adopted sustainability as a guiding principle for the university, inscribing it into the 2005-2015 strategic plan. Since that time, the university has become nationally known for innovations in green building, curriculum development, sustainable food procurement, and energy and water conservation, among other campus measures.
Emory committees and offices focused on sustainability can be found across schools and units, including the University Senate Committee on the Environment, the Piedmont Project, the Office of Sustainability Initiatives, the Emory Healthcare Sustainability Council and the Emory Climate Coalition (a coalition of student organizations focused on climate issues).
Last year, Emory President Gregory L. Fenves joined Race to Zero, a coalition of educational institutions devoted to achieving zero carbon emissions. Fenves also enrolled Emory in the Climate Leadership Network through Second Nature, a coalition of more than 450 institutions that have committed to accelerating climate action and taking concrete steps to meet their institutional goals. The Emory Climate Action Task Force, managed through the Office of Sustainability Initiatives, began meeting earlier this fall to honor the climate commitments signed by Fenves and help implement the university’s rigorous climate action plan on campus.
The Emory Climate Research Initiative will complement these ongoing actions and build synergies with other campus initiatives through its focus on climate change research and teaching, bringing the full force of Emory’s intellectual engine to bear on the current crisis, according to Bruner.
“The timing is urgent, and the opportunities to make a difference are many,” Bruner says. “Responding to climate change effectively and swiftly is a challenge that requires the best minds of this generation. With this initiative, Emory will bring together the insights and energies of faculty and student researchers to make a real difference, both as an anchor institution in the Southeast and as a leader nationally. We have a meaningful chance to support the communities around us, locally and globally.”
Meet the team launching Emory’s new climate research initiative
Kyle Lambelet, Candler School of Theology
Eri Saikawa, Emory College of Arts & Sciences
Wesley Longhofer, Goizueta Business School
Melissa Hage, Oxford College
Yang Liu, Rollins School of Public Health
Mindy Goldstein, School of Law
Rebecca Philipsborn, School of Medicine
Lisa Thompson, Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing
Deborah Bruner, Senior Vice President for Research
Daniele Fallin, James Curran Dean, Rollins School of Public Health
Carla Freeman, Interim Dean, Emory College of Arts and Sciences
Linda McCauley, Dean, Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing