A New Climate Textbook Emerges from Mayflower Hill

Gail Carlson’s Human Health and the Climate Crisis aims to bring Colby-like environmental teaching into other classrooms

Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Director of the Buck Lab for Climate and Environment Gail Carlson
By Kardelen Koldas ’15Photography by Caitlin Penna
March 7, 2022

Gail Carlson, assistant professor of environmental studies and director of the Buck Lab for Climate and Environment, has taught climate change since her Colby career began in 2005. For the last four years, she has offered a dedicated course: Climate Change, Justice, and Health. 

“There really are very few places offering a course like this,” Carlson said. “Colby’s Environmental Studies Department has some real strengths, and one of them is an emphasis on environmental public health.”

Now, based on her 300-level course and two decades of teaching experience, Carlson has written a textbook, Human Health and the Climate Crisis, published by Jones & Bartlett Learning. Her interdisciplinary book will introduce others to the kind of teaching common in the Colby classroom. It has wide application in undergraduate and graduate programs, ranging from environmental studies to medicine, global studies, and public policy.

“There are very few textbooks out there about climate change and human health,” she said, and none is designed specifically to anchor a course. “My textbook is filling a niche that is not occupied by another book.”

It’s a crucial gap to fill. While there are many important ways to think about climate change, Carlson believes the human-health angle is particularly effective. “It’s easier to hold perhaps the urgency of climate change action at arm’s length if it seems like something distant,” she said. But framing the climate crisis as a human-health crisis “brings it home and makes it real for a lot of people.” 

The systemic problems causing climate change also lead to preventable health burdens and health inequity, and addressing one will help the other, she noted. “This idea that you can improve health status by mitigating greenhouse gasses is something we should say out loud more,” she said. “We certainly aren’t saying ‘health’ in the same sentence as ‘climate change’ enough.”

To emphasize health in climate change conversations, Carlson decided to write this textbook. She modeled it after her Colby course so that more people can teach and learn about the inherent link between climate change and health. 

The first three chapters introduce climate science, climate justice, and public health and epidemiology. Then it dives into climate-related stressors that affect human health, such as extreme weather, air pollution, and displacement. She also designed a sample syllabus to be used with the book and created slide decks, discussion questions, and a test bank. 

“I hope that this (textbook) will be an important addition to the rallying cry and will also help raise awareness about how this is profoundly a human crisis and a human health crisis.”

Gail Carlson, assistant professor of environmental studies and director of the Buck Lab for Climate and Environment

Carlson’s book benefited from her students’ work and insights, as well.

Students in her Climate Change, Justice, and Health class have researched how climate change is impacting health in populations around the world. “They came up with some really fantastic initial observations,” some of which she incorporated into the book, particularly to illustrate the climate crisis’s health impact on at-risk populations, such as indigenous people and communities of color. She also dedicated a chapter to climate justice.

“I just am so grateful to my students for helping me understand the breadth of this crisis and how it impacts people in different places,” she said.

Megan Andersen ’22, an environmental science major with a public health concentration, contributed to the book as a student and as a research assistant, along with Ingrid Sant ’21, who also took Carlson’s class, and Hannah Richelieu ’21, who wrote two cases included in the book. 

Andersen described the textbook as “very real world. It gives you the connection between health, justice, and climate,” she said. “Prior to doing this work, I wasn’t aware of how much climate change and health were linked, and how little climate change is recognized as a human health crisis.”

With this understanding, Andersen hopes to find opportunities at the intersection of environmental science and medicine as she considers becoming a physician. 

She carried out a literature review for a chapter on extreme heat, which prompted her to write an article for her local newspaper. In addition, she conducted an independent study that Carlson used in the book’s final chapter that explores the perspectives and responsibilities of medical professionals. 

Through a survey in partnership with the Maine Medical Association, Andersen uncovered how Maine’s health professionals observed climate change-related health issues in their patients. She found that physicians noticed numerous health problems, such as climate anxiety and a significant increase in tick-related diseases, like Lyme disease, which is sensitive to climate change.

“In Maine, everyone knows someone who has gotten Lyme disease. Everyone knows somebody who has asthma,” Carlson said. “This is happening now. This isn’t some future thing.” She added that groups like the American Medical Association have called for teaching climate change in the medical curriculum.  

“I hope that this (textbook) will be an important addition to the rallying cry and will also help raise awareness about how this is profoundly a human crisis and a human health crisis,” she said. 

“We just have no time to lose.”