Drexel launches new health policy research center focused on climate change

The center will concentrate on equity and providing cities with evidence-based policies to protect their residents.

A person walks by a sign reading Drexel University.

(Courtesy of 6abc)

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Researchers at Drexel hope to help develop policies that protect people living in cities from heat waves, flooding and drought.

The university announced the launch of a new research center Wednesday focused on the health and equity impacts of climate change.

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“There are many things cities can do that people may not think are related to health, but that have major health impacts and environmental benefits at the same time,” said Ana Diez Roux, a Drexel professor of epidemiology and director of the school’s Urban Health Collaborative. “We want to generate debate and discussion and build evidence to support cities taking those kinds of actions.”

The unequal impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly clear.

In Philadelphia, neighborhoods formerly subjected to the racist practice of redlining are more vulnerable to heat waves, and thousands of people lose access to air conditioning or fans each summer when their electricity is shut off because they can’t pay bills. Unsheltered people are particularly exposed to extreme weather like heavy rain.

“Based on our prior work, those same neighborhoods that are warmer tend to be the neighborhoods that are suffering from other environmental justice issues,” said epidemiology professor Usama Bilal, who codirects Drexel’s Urban Health Collaborative. “They are neighborhoods that are more segregated. They tend to be poorer neighborhoods, etc. So health risks actually concentrate in those neighborhoods.”

Existing Drexel faculty will expand their research in the areas of climate-related health and equity, and the university will hire more support staff.

The new Drexel-led center will also include researchers at universities in California, Guatemala and Brazil.

“Across South America in general there have been tremendous impacts of climate change,” Bilal said. “In those countries, they are doing other things that are different from what we are doing here, so we can learn from those things.”

Conversations with people already implementing health and environmental policies on a local level will drive the research agenda, Bilal said. Then the researchers will present their findings to these stakeholders.

“We want to go back to them with the research to say ‘Hey, here are the results,’” he said. “‘What is most interesting about this? What is most policy actionable for you?’”

The center is funded with a three-year, roughly $3 million federal grant. After that expires, the founders of the center hope to expand it.

“Our goal, really, is to continue this work and expand into an even larger center that will take forward many things that we learned in this phase, including inputs from policymakers and communities on what they really need,” Diez Roux said.

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