“Many people consider climate change to be something that will affect future generations, people who live in other countries, or people who are different from them, usually the poor. Nothing could be farther from the truth,” said Robert Byron, M.D., MPH, FACP, and an alum (1998) of the UW Online Master of Public Health (MPH) program. “While vulnerable people and populations are at higher risk for negative impacts, unabated climate change will be an equal opportunity disaster for everyone.”
This consensus is at the core of Byron and his co-authors’ new report: “Climate Change and Human Health in Montana: A Special Report of the Montana Climate Assessment,” released in January 2021 after two years in development. Also known as C2H2, the report is a follow-up to the publication of the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment. While the original report focused on climate change’s impact on the state’s agriculture, forest, and water resources, it lacked data and information relating specifically to human health. To help address these gaps, the authors of the original study contacted Byron, an internist, and his wife, Dr. Lori Byron, a pediatrician, two prominent physicians advocating for climate action in Montana.
For years, the Byrons have worked to raise awareness of the impact of climate change on human health in Montana and at the national level. In these efforts, they have partnered with entities such as the Health Action Team for Citizens Climate Lobby, American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Chapter Climate Advocates network, the Children’s Health Advisory Committee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health.
“Some years ago, as we looked at the scientific evidence related to climate change, we both realized that, while taking care of individuals is important, if systemic efforts are not made to address climate change, there will come a point that what happens in individual offices and exam rooms won’t matter, because of the catastrophic impacts of climate change on human health and ecosystems,” explains Byron. Along with other passionate climate advocates, the Byrons founded Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate (Montana HPHC), a non-profit group of nurses, doctors, therapists, veterinarians, researchers, and other health care community specialists. Together, Montana HPHC members focus their efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change, and provide a cohesive voice representing health professionals across the state.
Montana HPHC produced the C2H2 report along with the Montana University System’s Institute on Ecosystems and Montana State University’s Center for American Indian and Rural Health Equity (CAIRHE), with support from the Montana Healthcare Foundation. The report analyzes and presents data specific to climate change in Montana, and provides steps and action plans for individuals, families, and organizations to learn, prepare, and protect themselves and their communities as climate change worsens.
C2H2 outlines three aspects of projected climate change that are of the greatest concern for human health in Montana:
- increased summer temperatures and extreme heat;
- reduced air quality from smoke, as wildfires increase in size and frequency; and
- more “climate surprises,” or unexpected climate-related weather events, such as rapid spring snowmelt and flooding, severe summer drought, and more extreme storms.
Flooding and droughts not only threaten human lives directly, but also threaten agriculture, and therefore food security and nutrition. Flooding also increases the risk of water-borne gastrointestinal diseases, and droughts can promote the spread of West Nile virus. Warmer temperatures and elevated carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are leading to increased pollen levels, which worsen allergies and asthma. Climate change can also have serious negative impacts on mental health through multiple pathways, and is one of the most devastating, yet underrecognized health impacts.
The report found that the most vulnerable individuals will be those with existing chronic physical and mental health conditions, the very young, very old, and pregnant women and their fetuses. Montana’s high-risk populations include Native Americans, those exposed to prolonged heat and smoke, living in poverty, having limited access to healthcare services, and/or lacking adequate health insurance.
Climate change and air pollution (particularly from burning fossil fuels) already affect the health of people across the globe. However, the U.S. faces particular challenges in developing the capacity and willingness to take effective action on climate change, due to the partisan nature of this issue in American public opinion and policy.
“Climate change cannot be effectively addressed by any single person, group, or nation,” Byron said. “It will take everyone and all countries working together. We describe it as the world’s largest group participation project; we either all win or all lose together.” As such, the report recommends specific steps for private individuals, health care professionals, clinics, hospitals, elected officials, and organizations, including government agencies.
Byron is intimately familiar with the entangled relationships between medicine, public health, and environmental justice. He pursued his MPH at UW to inform his work at the Crow Indian Reservation in Southern Montana, where he practiced internal medicine for over two decades. “I earned my MPH to learn how to better bridge the two worlds of direct care and public health, which often have competing or even oppositional priorities,” Byron shares.
“The MPH curriculum’s emphasis on concepts and specific methodology for obtaining, analyzing, and sharing data and information provided a broader background than what was available in my training as a physician,” Byron said. “Additionally, the attention to multidisciplinary involvement across sectors is a key concept that has proven to be crucial, especially relative to climate change issues.”
Now retired from his career as a physician, Byron is focused on the fight against climate change, and hopes that the team’s findings will ignite action in Montana and across the U.S.