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How to make climate change and health a less underreported issue Date: 05/20/19

Linda Marsa

By Bara Vaida

Health and science writer Linda Marsa’s 2013 book, “Fevered: Why A Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health – And How We Can Save Ourselves,” focused on climate change and its impact on health. Still relevant, Marsa’s work remains one of the few focused on the topic and represents an underreported aspect of climate change stories.

For that reason, journalists interested in covering climate and health should pick up a copy, which provides a roadmap for covering the issue. Marsa looks at climate change through the lens of agriculture disruption, air pollution, the spread of infectious diseases, heat waves, health system disruption, water pollution and drought. She also examines a few successful policies that have been aimed at addressing the disruptions caused by the warming planet.

Marsa recently sat down to talk with AHCJ and provided some tips to help colleagues wishing to cover climate change and health.

Q: Why did you decide to write about this topic?

A: I wanted to do a book and thought “what is the most important issue that is facing us?” It was — and remains — climate change. Also, I am just a really firm believer that you always have to expand your skill set. I had been writing for a very long time on the pharmaceutical industry and new medical advances, and I wanted to move into environmental health and write about that. There also wasn’t that much research on it at the time and so I thought it would just be a really good area to cover.

Q: How then did your interest in environmental health lead to a book?

A: I was a contributing editor to Discover magazine and so I pitched a story to them on climate change and how it is affecting our health. It ended up being a cover story for them. So it started with a magazine article. In that way, I got someone else to pay for the beginning of my research for the book and it gave me the opportunity to see if there was a book there. The article won some awards, so I pitched it to a book agent that I knew.

Q: How did you find your book agent?

A: I had already written a book, called “Prescription for Profits,” which was about the drug industry, so I already knew people in the publishing industry and I was referred by friends to Alice Martell of the Martell Agency. She knows everyone and is a lawyer. She also is a great editor. She helped edit my book proposal and manuscript.

Q: How did you balance writing your book with your other freelance work?

A: Alice got me a nice advance, but it didn’t come close to covering what I needed to live. I ended up working on my book for three years. I am a slow writer, and I had to stop and start so that I do other stories. I’m not independently wealthy so I couldn’t just work on the book. I was able to pitch one of the chapters of my book to Discover, so I was able to make a little off of that while writing my book. It was the chapter about how Australia was coping with climate change, which ended up in the Best American Science Writing anthology in 2012.

Q: Who were your best resources then and who do you think journalists should reach out to now to cover climate change and public health?

A: The problem was that there weren’t many researchers working on climate change and health at that point, so I was inventing the wheel. There was [and still is] George Luber, [former head of the CDC’s Climate and Health Program]. I really learned a lot from the local public health officials and the community activists in each of the places that I focused my book. So [it was] local folks in the Central Valley in California, who help me write about Valley Fever and the local health workers in New Orleans [helped me write about public health infrastructure]. I would say [take the same approach] today. The people at the CDC are excellent, so I would talk to them, especially about the spread of infectious diseases. Talk to local activist organizations. Talk to the National Resources Defense Council and Kim Knowlton, who is their senior scientist and deputy director of the NRDC Science Center. Just pick an area and find a community-health organization and they are working on the health angle of this. Call your local university, they are working on it. Also, talk to the American Public Health Association. Their leader, Georges Benjamin, has really taken this topic up. But call local groups where infectious disease outbreaks are happening. You’ll find great people there to bring your story to life.

Q: Do you think there has there been a shift in understanding about the impact of climate change on health since you wrote your book?

A: More people are aware of it. Stepping back, this book is a template of all the basic things to focus on if you are covering health and climate change: air pollution, spread of infectious diseases, the collapse of the public health system after extreme weather events—we’ve seen this more recently in Puerto Rico and, to a less extent, Houston, water issues and heat waves. These are the five basic things to focus on. Nothing has changed in terms of these things [being fixed]. It has only gotten worse.