A group of people sitting around a long table in a white room.
At the event at the Science Museum of Virginia, VCU engineering professor Stephen Fong, Ph.D., shared results of recent VCU research on the health care costs of extreme heat. (Photo by Thomas Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications).

VCU faculty share insight at climate roundtable with Rep. Jennifer McClellan and NASA Deputy Administrator Pamela Melroy

Researchers Stephen Fong, Ph.D., and Damian Pitt, Ph.D., discuss how extreme weather threatens public health in Virginia and across the country, as well as strategies for mitigating climate change.

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Experts from Virginia Commonwealth University joined a roundtable discussion on Monday, July 31, at the Science Museum of Virginia to share insights on the public health and economic impacts of climate change locally and nationally. Convened by U.S. Rep. Jennifer McClellan of Virginia and NASA Deputy Administrator Pamela Melroy, the roundtable served an opportunity to analyze strategies for government officials, researchers, educators and community partners to collaboratively address the climate emergency and advance environmental justice. 

Extreme heat is becoming increasingly common across the globe, and heat waves are projected to be even longer and more frequent in the coming years as a result of climate change. Rising temperatures have direct, adverse impacts on public health in Virginia and across the nation, including heat stroke, heat exhaustion, respiratory issues and increased rates of hospitalization.

“As is often the case, these impacts are felt most often and most severely by the most vulnerable of our communities,” said McClellan, whose 4th Congressional District covers much of Richmond, Chesterfield County, Petersburg and areas stretching south to the North Carolina border. “What’s clear is that our worsening climate is an environmental justice issue that poses life-threatening danger to people and that these effects will only continue to intensify without immediate and decisive action.”

“Across the globe, people are facing extreme weather conditions that require action and more accessible data on how our planet is changing,” said Melroy, who as an astronaut commanded or piloted several space shuttle missions. “For decades, NASA has used our unique vantage point of space to collect data that empowers researchers and climate leaders in our communities – and around the world – to make informed decisions and prepare for the impacts of climate change for generations to come.”

Participants in this roundtable discussion included Stephen Fong, Ph.D., director of the VCU Integrative Life Sciences doctoral program and a professor in the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering at the VCU College of Engineering. He shared the results of a recent report on the health care costs of extreme heat. By analyzing climate and insurance claims data in Virginia, Fong and his colleagues found that heat events each summer result in: 

  • Almost 400 additional ambulatory care visits for heat-related illness.
  • Almost 7,000 additional emergency department visits, including more than 4,600 visits for heat-related or heat-adjacent illness.
  • Almost 2,000 extra heat-related hospital admissions, mostly for heat-adjacent illness.
Three people standing in a model space station room.
Rep. Jennifer McClellan, NASA Deputy Administrator Pamela Melroy and the event’s participants toured the Science Museum of Virginia, including its “Space: An Out-of-Gravity Experience” exhibit. (Photo by Thomas Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications).

Extrapolated nationally, this data suggests that heat event days would be responsible for almost 235,000 emergency department visits and more than 56,000 hospital admissions for heat-related or heat-adjacent illness, adding approximately $1 billion in costs every summer.

“By doing a rigorous analysis, our team wanted to provide information that can spur action,” Fong said. “This roundtable was a unique opportunity to have a discussion in a close-knit setting with different entities that can take this information and take steps to improve people’s lives at different levels – national policy to community-based groups.”

Damian Pitt, Ph.D., an associate professor and chair of the Urban and Regional Planning Program in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at VCU, also provided insight in the roundtable discussion. 

His research focuses on sustainability-focused energy policy and climate-action planning at the local and state level. During the roundtable, Pitt discussed one of his recently published studies, in which he and colleagues modeled the impacts of the energy efficiency revenue that would be generated if Virginia stays in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative through 2030. Their calculations showed that the revenue from RGGI would fund energy efficiency improvements to more than 100,000 low-income homes, resulting in about $70 million to $90 million in customer utility bill savings per year.

Pitt also highlighted the efforts of the VCU Institute for Sustainable Energy and Environment, a new interdisciplinary research center dedicated to helping faculty and students from across the university work on projects that address the climate crisis.

“Through this institute, we’re bringing together scientists from a wide range of STEM fields and connecting them with policy experts, sociologists, artists and other partners to form collaborations for solving various energy and environmental issues,” said Pitt, who is the associate director of policy and community engagement for the ISEE. “In this role, I help link VCU faculty and students to government and state agency officials, nonprofits, community groups and private businesses to develop research projects focused on sustainability.”

In addition to Fong and Pitt, roundtable panelists included Kate Calvin, Ph.D., chief scientist and senior climate adviser at NASA; Richard Conti, chief wonder officer at the Science Museum of Virginia; Todd Lookingbill, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Geography, Environment and Sustainability at the University of Richmond; and Sheri Shannon, co-founder of Southside ReLeaf, an environmental justice organization in South Richmond.