Remembering the Great Dr. Paul Epstein, Who Helped Warn the World of the Health Impacts of Climate Change

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.

I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake.

Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

— G. B. Shaw, quoted by Dr. Eric Chivian in his remembrance of Paul

I was fortunate to get to know him over the years in the various meeting we attended together and then through blog posts he submitted.  He was passionate and brilliant and tireless and thoughtful, a physician and public health expert who helped steer scientists and climate hawks toward a crucial understanding of the impact on humans of human-caused global warming.  He was a great communicator who schooled us all on how to convey scientific information to the general public.

You can read some of his prolific work on the subject of health impacts of climate change here, including his  New England Journal of Medicine article, “Climate change and human health” and the exhaustive Climate Change Futures: Health, Ecological and Economic Dimensions.  You can read the NYT obituary here.

Here is a post on his groundbreaking article detailing the economic, health and environmental costs associated with each stage in the life cycle of coal – extraction, transportation, processing, and combustion: Life-cycle study: Accounting for total harm from coal would add “close to 17.8¢/kWh of electricity generated.” But he had diverse interests, as evidenced by his September 17 Climate Progress post explaining how a a levy on currency transactions could fund the clean energy transformation and healthy development.

Epstein was associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.  The director, Dr. Eric Chivian, a longtime friend and colleague of Epstein’s, sent out a long remembrance of him, which he has given me permission to repost in full.

He ends by saying, “When thinking about Paul’s life, and my own, and that of others I love, I think of what George Bernard Shaw said in 1907, as it says it all about Paul.”  After relaying the quote above Chivian says:

Let us grab the torch from Paul and make sure that it burns as brightly for us and for the world as it did for him.

Here are some details of the remarkable life of Dr. Paul Epstein from Dr. Chivian:

I have known Paul for over 30 years and have worked intensively with him for over 20. It is not really possible to summarize his life and his work, but I will try as best I can by mentioning what stands out for me.

*  Rio de Janeiro, June, 1992-Paul and I are at the Earth Summit (UNCED), holding a well-attended press conference “Where is Human Health at Rio?” after both of us are asked repeatedly “what are physicians like yourselves doing at an environmental conference,” and after being startled that there is almost no mention of health in the proceedings. Paul releases a report linking the cholera epidemic, then going on in Peru, to algal blooms caused by warming sea surface temperatures and nutrient discharge. The report is covered by the Wall Street Journal. It became clear to me then that Paul was a master at reading Nature’s signals of our damage to the environment, and at understanding the implications of this damage to our lives. He was also a “black belt” in knowing how to get this information out to the public.

[a footnote here-Both Paul and I, along with many other physicians, were profoundly influenced by Alex Leaf’s seminal 1989 article in the New England Journal of Medicine {Vol. 321(23):1577-1583} “Potential Health Effects of Global Climatic and Environmental Changes” where Alex, a mentor to many of us, called on physicians to educate others, as we had with nuclear war, about the human health dimensions of global environmental changes.]

*  Spring, 1996-I propose to Paul, Mary Wilson, Howard Hu, and Dan Goodenough that they join me in starting the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. Dan gives us space in the Holmes Society; HMS Dean Dan Tosteson is an enthusiastic supporter, as is the Academic Council; and we officially become a Center, the first center at a medical school in the country focused on health and global environmental change. Jim McCarthy, Edward Wilson, and several other faculty from around the university join us from the start in this effort.

*  Fall, 1997-Paul, Dan, Howard, and I (later to be joined by Tim Ford and Melissa Perry) begin teaching “Human Health and Global Environmental Change” at HMS. Open to all students at Harvard, the course becomes one of the most popular and highly rated environmental courses at the university for a decade. More than 500 students take it for credit. The course is held, in whole or in part, by 65 other medical schools, colleges, and grad schools around the world. [Note-the course has been re-started last year at the Harvard School of Public Health and is now run by Ari Bernstein]

*  December, 1997-Paul and I go to the Kyoto Summit together, having just released a full page, Center-initiated letter to Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin and other world leaders, in the NY Times on Dec. lst, 1997 “Medical Warning: Global Warming” signed by several hundred leading physicians from 30 countries.

*  Fall, 1998-Paul and I start an intensive Center course for congressional staff “Environmental Change: the Science and Human Health Implications” which we hold each year for 10 years, establishing close working relationships with key staffers, Republicans and Democrats, from the House and Senate.

*  Paul and I together hold a total of 23 Center congressional briefings, each one sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats, such as Paul’s briefing “Oceans, Climate and Human Health”

*  Paul and I publish, separately and together, more letters to the editor and op/eds over the past decade in the NY Times, Boston Globe, and other newspapers than perhaps any two people from any organization in the country.

*  Paul was a central figure in our historic Scientist-Evangelical Initiative and led presentations, with his evangelical colleagues, at several Christian colleges, making many close friends and catalyzing the formation of “green groups” at these colleges.

*  Paul released a series of widely distributed, highly influential reports, including, among several others:

1.   Marine Ecosystems: Emerging Diseases as Indicators of Change
2.   Oil: A Life Cycle Analysis of its Health and Environmental Impacts
3.   Climate Change Futures: Health, Ecological and Economic Dimensions
4.   Healthy Solutions for the Low Carbon Economy: Guidelines for Investors, Insurers and Policy Makers
5.   Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal

*  Paul publishes very widely in the peer-reviewed medical and scientific literature: the Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine, Science, Scientific American, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, and the Annals of the NY Academy of Sciences, among many others.

*  Paul appears on radio and TV programs too numerous to count-from the networks and major cable to small local stations-he always had time to speak to any reporter, to patiently explain what concerned him most.

Paul’s curiosity was insatiable. He read incessantly, widely and deeply-newspapers, journals, reports, books-in many and varied fields, and seemed equally at home discussing such topics as: the dynamics of El Ninos, heat transfer and the ocean’s conveyor belt, and the life cycle of bark beetles, as he was with subjects like the necessity of instituting a Tobin tax on global financial transactions.

He was one of the first people to link extreme weather events with the emergence and spread of human infectious diseases. He was one of the first people to recognize the independent effects of greenhouse gases on the environment and human health, independent of their impact on temperature and precipitation, by looking, for example, at ragweed pollen output. He was one of the first people to involve the financial, insurance, and
reinsurance sectors in addressing climate change, and in helping them understand why they had to be involved.

I could go on and on and on about his critically important contributions to our better understanding what we face by damaging the natural world.

But what was most important to me about Paul, perhaps even greater than all that I have written above, is that he was a true gentleman, a gentle man, a mensch. He saw the best in people, was always available to students and reporters, to public groups who wanted him to speak, really to anyone, great and small, who asked what he was thinking about.

He taught us all the value of learning everything you could about our impact on the environment and of helping others understand what you have learned–clearly, in everyday language, patiently, respectfully, without condescension. He taught us all that one should never give up in these efforts.

Even when he was quite ill and realized his time was short, Paul spoke to large numbers of reporters and published many articles and blogs with a frenzy of intensity. It was during this time that he finished his remarkable book with Dan Ferber Changing Planet, Changing Health.

And Paul taught us all how to face one’s own death with quiet dignity and great courage.

13 Responses to Remembering the Great Dr. Paul Epstein, Who Helped Warn the World of the Health Impacts of Climate Change

  1. Alex Smith says:

    Another case of you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.

    Paul Epstein was a giant in the field of the health impacts of climate change. He tirelessly briefed Congressional Staffers and Congress (when they would listen).

    Paul traveled to countless countries, especially in Africa, to advise governments on the coming impacts. He was a stalwart at climate conferences, and a walking textbook of the movement of diseases, as the climate shifted.

    Paul Epstein’s latest public book was “Changing Planet, Changing Health” co-authored with science writer Dan Ferber. It’s an excellent public entry tool to the subject.

    You can hear Paul on radio in May on Radio Ecoshock (15 minutes) here:


  2. Betsy Taylor says:

    I was so sad to learn of Paul’s death. For those who didn’t know him, I join with Joe in asking for a pause. Paul worked tirelessly for peace, justice, and climate solutions, through the lens of a physician and public health advocate. He was tenacious, funny, determined, and always ready to help the advocacy community. He testified countless times before Congressional and legislative committees, wrote op eds, spoke to public audiences, and conducted solid research demonstrating the hidden health costs of climate change and other environmental threats. He was also very active in the 80s during the fight for a freeze on nuclear weapons.

    We will miss you Paul. You lived well. We will hold you in the Light. Thank you for all you gave.

    Solidarity forever,
    Betsy Taylor

  3. Lou Grinzo says:

    A respectful pause is certainly in order. But if I may, please consider the Shaw quotation provided by Joe and Dr. Chivian, and then use that pause to refocus your efforts, to be all the more creative in how you reach out to the unengaged about climate change and our other sustainability challenges.

    It would be an unconscionable error to fail to learn as much as possible, and be deeply inspired by those around us, whether we’re talking about famous people who leave us much too soon, like Paul Epstein or Stephen Schneider, or those personal heroes we still have among us, who are far too numerous to mention.

  4. In 2005 When I first heard Paul talking on NPR’s “Fresh Air” about what was to me the largely unexamined effects of climate change on public health I realized his was a special voice, and that he should write a book on this topic. I cold-called him at Harvard. He was very open to speaking with me, an editor at a publishing house, someone he had never heard of before. We stayed in touch and eventually I was able to connect him with the man who would become his co-author, Dan Ferber. Published earlier this year, “Changing Planet, Changing Health” was the result. I am so sorry for the loss of Paul and very grateful for the chance to have known him and worked with him.

  5. Ahh no… Paul was a great source on connecting environment and health science. Quoted him and his studies many times over the the years. A very sad loss.

  6. dana1981 says:

    A sad loss, but Dr. Epstein managed to have a great impact during his life. We can all only hope and strive to have such a lasting positive impact. As Dr. Chivian says, grab the torch and keep it burning.

  7. Chris Winter says:

    I hold in my hands a bit of his legacy: a book which I will read as soon as may be.

    How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do about It
    Paul R. Epstein, M.D. and Dan Ferber
    Foreword by Jeffrey Sachs
    Berkeley: University of California Press, April 2011
    ISBN 978-0-520-26909-5

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Now, tell me, why are sane, humane, rational people like Epstein not to be found anywhere (with a few exceptions, and decidedly many fewer than in years gone by) within the realms of real power, in business, politics and the media?

  9. cathy strickler says:

    I met Dr. Epstein a conference in DC four years ago. We happened to sit next to each other at lunch. I had no knowledge of him or his work, being a new AGW grassroots activist from rural VA. His lack of ego, respect for and attention to my situation steered the conversation to his recommending Richard Cizak to speak at our local Earth Week. Richard came and a bridge was started between evangelical Christains and those who approach AGW from a science background. Dr. Epstein’s underlying philosophy of being of service, of helping, lived in that brief encounter and will be remembered and used as a inspiration and cue for how to be in this world. I am 67 y.o. also, grieve his loss, and more keenly appreciate my opportunity to continue being alive. My sympathy to all who knew him well.

  10. Missy says:

    Paul Epstein was a gentle giant. In everything from the way he aggressively tackled public health and environmental issues to his kind demeanor and willingness to help anyone he encountered. He was an extraordinary individual and the world certainly is better for him. I agree with the torch imagery as Paul always had a radiance about him that made him inspirational, approachable, and tireless in his pursuit for knowledge. His shoes are unfillable but let’s not try to fill them – let’s acknowledge what a great man Paul was and continue to fight for the causes he so clearly articulated. Let’s deal with social justice issues. Let’s tackle climate change. And let’s build a more robust, just and vibrant world for all creatures. That’s the message Paul taught me and I’m ready to do what I can to make him proud.

  11. Ben Epstein says:

    Thank you everyone and thank you Missy because it’s nice to know that his work inspired people enough to keep fighting for the causes he stood for. He would be very honored to have kind, compassionate and smart people like yourself to keep up the struggle for a healthier globe.

    Ben Epstein (Paul’s son)

  12. Sandy Webb says:

    I met Paul at a couple of climate change meetings in 1998 and 1999. Besides being a powerful and compelling speaker, he was a genuinely nice guy. We palled around in Zurich for a couple of days and I count myself very lucky to have gotten to know Paul as a wonderful, nice, genuine person. My life is richer for having known him and I will miss him – as will the world.