Annual climate change event takes aim at heat and human health for 2023

Panelists and moderator seated on stage in front of the audience
From left to right: Confronting Climate Change 2023 event moderator, Andrew Mathews, and speakers Matthew Huber, Julie Livingston, and Bharat Jayram Venkat. 

The ninth annual Confronting Climate Change event, “Heat! Climate Change and Human Health,” gathered top scholars at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center on April 13 to discuss the health impacts of climate change and the social and economic transformations needed to address them. The event was live-streamed for members of the public. 

Confronting Climate Change is hosted each year by UC Santa Cruz’s Division of Social Sciences and Division of Physical and Biological Sciences to provide an interdisciplinary deep-dive into climate change issues. Acting Dean of Social Sciences Heather Bullock described this year’s focus in her opening remarks.

“Tonight, we will examine the increasing impact of climate change on human health and how we can respond to these challenges with creativity, compassion, and a commitment to social justice,” she said. 

UC Santa Cruz Professor Andrew Mathews—an environmental anthropologist—introduced the night’s three main speakers and then moderated a discussion among them. The first speaker was Professor Matthew Huber, director of The Institute for a Sustainable Future at Purdue University, who holds a doctoral degree from UC Santa Cruz. 

Huber’s research focuses on climate modeling and heat stress, and he explained how the number of days with potentially deadly “wet bulb” temperatures would increase under different emissions scenarios. Under high emissions scenarios, he showed how the human health and economic impacts could be both dire and inequitably distributed. And he called for urgent action to reduce emissions. 

“Any one of these [emissions scenarios] is a possible future, and it's our decisions that are going to decide which of those paths we’re on,” he said.

The second speaker was New York University Professor Julie Livingston, who discussed how climate change and related disasters increase rates of suicide and mental health issues. 

“At its largest scale, climate change is a gross act of collective murder-suicide unfolding in broad daylight, orchestrated and furthered by powerful interests,” she said.  

Livingston also discussed how efforts to medicate ourselves out of this crisis—without addressing the systemic roots of the problem—can cause other forms of environmental harm, as psychotropic drugs enter our wastewater in increasing amounts.

The next speaker was Assistant Professor Bharat Jayram Venkat, who leads the UCLA Heat Lab, where researchers are engaged in an interdisciplinary effort to study the experience of what he calls “thermal inequality.” 

“Our aim in the lab is to understand how certain kinds of people and certain kinds of bodies and communities have been actively made more vulnerable to the effects of heat,” he said. 

Venkat shared historical and modern examples from around the globe of how the experience of heat is racialized, with people of color having the most heat exposure in their occupations and through the built environment of their homes and communities. He traced these effects back to the legacies of racism and colonialism and emphasized that “thermal comfort for some is purchased at the expense of others.”

During the panel portion of the evening, the speakers discussed ways that our communities might adapt to extreme heat, including tree cover and shade structures, the pros and cons of air conditioning, and the need to ensure access to safe, stable housing. They also discussed how climate change demonstrates the complex interconnectedness of health, environmental issues, and social and economic systems. Ultimately, panelists agreed that tackling the effects of heat on human health will call for an integrated approach. 

Paul Koch, dean of the Division of Physical and Biological Sciences, gave closing remarks for the event and invited the audience to continue thinking and learning about climate change.