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Medical Education
May 28, 2020

The Political Context of Climate-Health Education

Author Affiliations
  • 1School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(5):e207149. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.7149

Shea et al1 report on an important study regarding education on climate and health (climate-health). Of 84 institutions responding to a survey on climate-health education, almost two-thirds reported that they offered some climate-health education, commonly in the core curriculum, and many were planning to extend their offerings. From the perspective of a climate-health educator, these findings are encouraging, but some caution is needed.

The survey was conducted with members of the Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education (GCCHE). The response rate was slightly over 50% (84 of 160 institutions). Most respondents reported a positive response to instituting climate-health curricula, particularly from students, followed by faculty. Just under 40%, however, reported a positive response from administration. Respondents also discussed challenges in developing climate-health curricula, including lack of staff time, lack of teaching materials or staff expertise, and lack of funding for curriculum development. Other challenges included “competing institutional priorities/politics,” and a small number of respondents (4) mentioned “administrative or other skepticism about climate-health science.”1

Research on public health practice has identified similar challenges, including politicization of climate change, competing organizational priorities, hierarchical management structures, and a discursive context in which climate change may not be seen as core business for public health.2,3 These factors can interact and potentially create an atmosphere through which public health practitioners are discouraged from addressing climate-health issues. It is possible that similar factors are at work in some academic settings.

In the political context, there are also factors particularly affecting universities, one being a lack of funding for climate-health research and another an emphasis on the commercialization of research in situations where public funding of universities is often restricted or declining.4

Lack of research funding, sometimes in contradiction to stated national commitments, has been reported in several countries.5,6 This factor has particular implications for teaching, as a lack of research funding for climate-health means fewer opportunities for graduate students in this area, and therefore fewer people available to teach, as well as less expertise.

The emphasis on commercialization of research can also conflict with climate-health research and education. While some climate-health research may have commercial potential, much of it is necessarily in the field of public good. It also often has policy implications that may not always be welcomed by governments or political lobby groups opposed to climate change action. Such conflicts may be reflected in competing organizational priorities.

In this context it would be valuable to know more about institutions that are not offering climate-health curricula. Shea et al1 acknowledge that, given the response rate was just over half of the institutions surveyed, respondents may not be typical of all GCCHE members. The authors therefore examined a sample of published curriculum materials from responding and nonresponding institutions to identify possible differences in relation to climate-health curricula. This investigation suggested that, while nonresponding institutions might be slightly less likely to offer climate-health curricula than responding institutions, the difference may not have been substantial. More broadly, however, it would be relevant to investigate institutions that are not offering any climate-health curriculum or are not members of relevant groups or networks, such as the GCCHE. Qualitative research to examine the situation at such institutions could be valuable.

Further analysis of international differences is another area for consideration. The GCCHE, whose members were surveyed, has a high proportion of members from the United States, particularly from schools of public health or similar settings.7 It would be valuable to compare the state of climate-health education in different countries and regions, including investigating whether and how the political context makes a difference, and also the situation in the low- to middle-income countries most likely to be affected by climate-health.

Further research and analysis to build on the findings of this study and explore the political context of climate-health education is merited. Such work is important to ensure that all relevant institutions can provide quality climate-health education to health professionals.

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Article Information

Published: May 28, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.7149

Open Access: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the CC-BY License. © 2020 Kay VA. JAMA Network Open.

Corresponding Author: Valerie Anne Kay, PhD, School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Monash University, Level 1, 553 St Kilda Road, Melbourne, VIC 3004 Australia (valerie.kay@monash.edu).

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: Dr Kay reported being the unit coordinator for the MPH5042 Climate Change and Public Health, an elective unit offered as part of the Masters of Public Health degree at Monash University.

References
1.
Shea  B, Knowlton  K, Shaman  J.  Assessment of climate-health curricula at international health professions schools.   JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(5):e206609. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.6609Google Scholar
2.
Gould  S, Rudolph  L.  Challenges and opportunities for advancing work on climate change and public health.   Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2015;12(12):15649-15672. doi:10.3390/ijerph121215010 PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
3.
Kay  VA, Livingstone  CH.  Promoting environmental sustainability, equity and health in Victorian primary care partnerships.   Health Promot J Austr. 2020;31(2):298-308. doi:10.1002/hpja.281 PubMedGoogle Scholar
4.
Wardle  JL, Baum  FE, Fisher  M.  The research commercialisation agenda: a concerning development for public health research.   Aust N Z J Public Health. 2019;43(5):407-409. doi:10.1111/1753-6405.12930 PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
5.
Green  D, Pitman  A, Barnett  A, Kaldor  J, Doherty  P, Stanley  F.  Advancing Australia’s role in climate change and health research.   Nat Clim Chang. 2017;7(2):103. doi:10.1038/nclimate3182 Google ScholarCrossref
6.
Ebi  KL, Semenza  JC, Rocklöv  J.  Current medical research funding and frameworks are insufficient to address the health risks of global environmental change.   Environ Health. 2016;15(1):108. Published online November 11, 2016. doi:10.1186/s12940-016-0183-3 PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
7.
Global Consortium on Climate Health Education. List of GCCHE member institutions. Accessed April 13, 2020. https://www.mailman.columbia.edu/research/global-consortium-climate-and-health-education/list-gcche-member-institutions
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