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Adapting to Climate Change

Uncovering insights from the front lines of Earth’s changing dynamics
Naresh Kumar, Ph.D.

Naresh Kumar, Ph.D.


aresh Kumar, Ph.D., professor of environmental health and biostatistics at the Miller School, teaches about the health effects of climate change. His research areas include air pollution toxicity, time-space modeling and personalized health risk surveillance. We asked him about adapting to climate change.

In your classes and in your research, your focus is on preparing ourselves for climate change. What’s an example of an intervention to help us adapt?

In fact, our existence is the byproduct of our adaptations to changing environments. Otherwise, we could have been extinct long ago. Almost all innate functions and features of our body that we rarely think about are examples of our evolutionary adaptation. Likewise, we also “consciously” engage in adaptations. Fasting is the most historical example of that. Fasting has been practiced in virtually all cultures. Historically, there used to be frequent famines and food scarcity. Thus, it was critical to train our bodies to survive on a very small amount of food or to skip a meal. So, fasting, from an evolutionary point of view, is designed to prepare your body for a food crisis. Often this happens because of extreme weather. Heat stress is particularly relevant in Florida because we are prone to year-round chronic heat stress, which will intensify with climate change. We cannot provide air conditioning everywhere, but we can plant more trees so that there is more shade outdoors and expose ourselves to the outdoor environment even if it is a bit hot. So, we need to prepare and adapt ourselves to the anticipated changes in the environment due to climate change.

You teach a popular class called Environmental Health. Student evaluations are extremely positive, especially around fieldwork. Who takes the class, and what does it cover?

Fifteen to 20% are medical students or full-fledged doctors. Two of the topics covered are climate and health, and hurricane and health impacts. It makes students think about the health risks and their management by evaluating the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they consume. These exercises, which are problem-based and include hands-on learning, allow students to practice this knowledge in their routine lives and translate it into their clinical practices. One of the fieldwork exercises demonstrates how excess humidity enhances heat stress and allergens, which in turn exacerbate the risk of multiple diseases. Installing a dehumidifier can fix both of them. Likewise, students investigate water pollution, food pollution, radiation and noise, and how to mitigate their exposures to these pollutants and harmful environmental conditions.

Your message seems to be one of moderation.

Seeing the misery of human life, the Buddha gave up his kingdom. His real name was Siddhartha Gautama, not Buddha. “Buddha” is derived from the Sanskrit word “buddhi,” meaning “intelligence.” He lived as a monk and preached “Buddham sharanam gacchami,” which essentially means “I surrender myself to my intelligence,” or simply, “use your brain for making decisions.” The main part of his philosophy was that anything in excess is bad. We need to balance all parts of our lives, including excess use of energy and/or resources and any sort of addictions. This knowledge has been with us for about three thousand years, but we have failed to practice it. Climate change is no different. Earth is our home, and our existence depends on it. To preserve it we must not be shortsighted and must live in harmony with the environment. We know that climate change is inevitable and that our addiction to fossil fuels has accelerated the pace of climate change and its impact on the environment and human health. To put a brake on this pace, we need to use resources wisely, abstain from excess consumption, and prepare and adapt ourselves to the anticipated changes in the environment.