Dr. Vanessa Kerry, who has worked on global health issues for two decades, recently took a more prominent role as the World Health Organization’s first Special Envoy for Climate Change and Health.
Kerry also directs the Program in Global Public Policy and Social Change in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and she has a family tie to climate action. Her father, John Kerry, is President Joe Biden‘s Special Envoy for Climate. With the WHO appointment in June Vanessa Kerry is now a climate envoy as well, a position she said can bring broader awareness of the climate connection to health.
“We’re really discovering all the ways that we’re being impacted by the increasing acceleration of climate change,” Kerry told Newsweek in a recent extended interview. “The climate crisis is a health crisis.”
Much of Kerry’s work over the past 20 years has been in sub-Saharan Africa, both as a clinician and as leader of the nonprofit Seed Global Health, which trains health care workers in the region. In that time, Kerry said, she has noticed an accelerating and disturbing trend as climate-driven weather extremes contribute to public health problems.
In her interview with Newsweek, which has been edited for length and clarity, Kerry cited the example of the southeastern African nation of Malawi, which has been battered by tropical storms over the past two years.
The World Weather Attribution group, an international consortium of climate researchers, said the region’s storms in 2022 were made worse by climate change, and a 2022 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said a warmer climate means cyclones in the area could have more intense rainfall and higher wind speeds. One extraordinary storm early this year, Cyclone Freddy, spun its way across the southern Indian Ocean for more than five weeks, becoming the longest-lasting and most energetic cyclone ever recorded. Kerry said the dramatic damage those storms inflict at landfall is just the start of the health impacts.
Newsweek: Tell me a little about what you see in your work in sub-Saharan Africa in terms of the effects that are related to climate change—the public health effects.Dr. Kerry: We’ve discovered that climate change has actually made our work harder and is threatening to reduce the progress that we have made not only in our work, but that globally we’ve made in public health throughout the years.
Just to give an example, in Malawi, where Seed has worked for 13 years, they just suffered the longest and largest cholera outbreak they’ve ever had in the country’s history. And this was because of a series of tropical storms that have come with increasing frequency and increasing intensity over southern Africa. And that did everything from change water sources to increasing the amount of malaria, but also with the change of water sources, put people at risk of getting cholera. And as we were doing our work, we ended up also then having to respond to a cholera epidemic.
And then when the bridges washed out from the storm, we ended up having to stand up new maternity birthing centers so that women could deliver safely. So, there’s a really long and large impact that comes from climate change.
Now, as I say this, it’s not all doom and gloom. We do have solutions and we know what we can do to change these outcomes. So that’s been the privilege of working through Seed Global Health, is that we’ve seen the power of investing in strong health systems, in healthcare workers that can deliver care and to meet these challenges.
But we need more of that.
These are fascinating examples that show just how intersectional climate change is. And I think it can be really overwhelming when we try to think about climate change because it does affect every aspect of our lives in some way. But to your final point there, it also suggests some ways that we can tackle more than one problem at a time. I guess the term here is “elegant solutions,” right?I love elegant solutions. There’s an expression in medicine called an Occam’s razor, which means your different symptoms are caused by a single disease. And I think there’s an Occam’s solution here, if you will, which is the sense that a single solution can solve many problems.
So yes, climate change can absolutely be overwhelming. There’s a lot happening, and it’s been accelerating over the summer, and it can feel very apocalyptic. But truthfully, we do actually know what to do. I mean, we have all the tools in our capacity. First and foremost, we have to reduce greenhouse gases. That is the cause of this harm.
We also know that, for example, if you reduce greenhouse gases, which is the main driver of air pollution, which causes seven million deaths a year, if we halve the amount of greenhouse gases we put into the planet by 2050, we could see up to a 50 percent reduction in deaths from air pollution.
We also know that if you stop driving a vehicle and you bike or you walk more, you can actually have better benefits to your own cardiovascular health; that when we create green spaces, there’s huge benefits to mental health.
So, there’s ways that just by reducing our contributions, we can see the co-benefits of health.
I’m assuming that this is a major goal for you as the WHO’s special envoy. What does that mean, being a special envoy, and how does it help you achieve these things?It’s interesting because this the first-ever Special Envoy for Climate Change and Health from the WHO and I think it really does reflect the urgency of the crisis we’re facing, and also the opportunities to change how we are engaging in responding to that crisis.
The focus of this position for me is to very much help the WHO and to help other colleagues and allies to really understand this nexus of climate change and health, to help frame, I think, solutions for policymakers and for financiers. There is opportunity to build strong health systems that can meet existing burdens of disease and future burdens of disease. And we can start to invest in our well-being in a way that we are prioritizing people’s health, their livelihoods and their ability to go to work, and to care for their families.
With the big climate change gathering coming up [the United Nations COP 28, or Conference of Parties], what do you think are the most immediate steps you’d like to see specific to this connection between climate change and public health?Well, I think it’s incredibly exciting that COP 28 for the first time ever has a dedicated day of health [programming]. So really focusing on the intersection of climate change and health, that has never happened. The opportunity here is to make sure that this intersection is understood at the highest political levels to be able to help shift policies that are going to invest in better health and in all of the savings and co-benefits that we see with that. I sound like a broken record, I’m sure, but it is really urgent that we reduce the amount of greenhouse gases.
And I think it’s an opportunity specifically for world leaders to understand that the health crisis being driven by climate change has an impact across every sector. We’ve talked about some of the economics, but the World Bank expects [as many as] 132 million people to be pushed into poverty by climate change, a third of those specifically by the health impacts of climate change. That’s a complete reversal of progress that we’ve made over recent years.
I wanted to ask about your father because he’s obviously the president’s climate envoy, but he’s also just been very active on this issue for so long as Secretary of State, and—boy, I’m really dating myself with this—20 years ago I interviewed him when I worked on Capitol Hill about climate change. I’m just wondering how that influenced you in your decisions to incorporate climate change in your professional life?It’s an interesting question because climate change is an intergenerational problem. It has been an issue actually for years before we chose to recognize it. It’s been an issue, and it will be an issue for my children and their children.
It was actually my grandmother [Rosemary Forbes Kerry] who I think inspired a lot of the engagement in protecting our earth and, you know, sort of honoring it. And I remember that from the days of growing up and I know it influenced my father and my father, in turn, influenced me.
But again, I think as a physician and as somebody who’s done this work for 20 years, climate change has become inevitable to the work that I do. There’s no way for me to do my job without coming square into climate change.
So, it’s been an incredible connection, obviously, to be my father’s daughter, because he’s taught me the power of service, and the power of being a global citizen and the importance to fight for what matters at every second, and that is a really powerful lesson to have taken forward.
But it’s also fun because I get to teach him now because there’s so much that he’s learning about this intersection that he didn’t know. And it’s fun to be alongside him. We’re in this with a big group of people who want to see some big change.