Story | 16 Jan, 2019

Students Study Protected Areas and Learn About Climate Change and Human Health Impacts

CEESP News - by Warren G. Lavey, University of Illinois 

In a university environmental policy course addressing the benefits, protections, and challenges for natural areas, lessons, and students’ research papers provided training about the many adverse impacts of climate change on human health as well as on ecosystems around the world.

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Photo: Holly Rosencranz

An advanced-level course in environmental policy used IUCN materials and protected natural areas to guide students’ analyses of climate change impacts on human health as well as ecosystems.  This curriculum increased the students’ knowledge of and concerns about natural areas, legal frameworks, and climate change.

In 2018 at the University of Illinois, sixteen weeks of lessons and written assignments covered local, national, transboundary, and international laws for protecting natural areas, including topics on stakeholders, governance, management, enforcement, indigenous peoples’ rights, ecosystem services, marine areas, incentive systems, and advocacy.   The lessons included case studies of climate change in Everglades National Park, Papua New Guinea, Brazilian and Canadian forests, and Vietnamese and British coastal areas.

The assignment for the students’ final paper was:

Choose a protected natural area that is showing impacts of climate change.  In particular, select an area where climate change is having an impact on the health of humans in or near the protected area. Research and analyze how the legal framework for protecting that area is adjusting to mitigate, adapt to, and/or communicate the risks of climate change and the impacts on human health. 

Students’ papers showed that this assignment was effective.  The following highlights ten choices of protected areas, observations on climate change and human health impacts around those areas, and analysis of actions taken or recommended:

  • “Sumatra Rainforest” (Alexander Pradana) – changes in precipitation and rising seas add to damages from deforestation for palm oil; humans suffer from more mosquito- and water-borne diseases, reduced access to food and clean water, flooding, and wildfires; actions by the national government, indigenous peoples, and multinational corporations

  • ”YUS Conservation Area (Papua New Guinea)” (Susan Petrosky) – climate change contributed to sea level rise, extreme weather events, and dying mangrove forests and coral reefs; human health deteriorated from malnutrition, malaria, cholera, and mental stress; recommended improving crops, forest management, and water and sanitation infrastructure, as well as relocating vulnerable communities

  • “Aral Sea” (Justin Hedman) – heat and drought compound the desertification from diverting waters for irrigation; people suffer from toxic, saline dust storms, anemia, and birth abnormalities; World Bank program with Kazakhstan to restore the North Aral Sea

  • “Yellowstone National Park” (Steven Sabatini) – warmer and drier conditions, resulting in reduced water flows, more invasive species, and greater wildfire threats; water insecurity and respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses from wildfires; actions to improve water and forest management, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions

  • “Gangotri National Park (India)” (Tanmay Takle) – retreating glaciers and flooding from more intense storms; reduced food and water security, and deaths and displacements from flooding; efforts to support forests and biodiversity, educate farmers on sustainable practices, and increase solar power

  • “Great Barrier Reef” (Jack Javer) – damages to coral from warming water and ocean acidification; deterioration of fisheries endangers food security and livelihoods; recommended reducing area coal mining, fishing, and shipping, and adopting a carbon tax to cut emissions

  • “Vietnam’s Coastline and Deltas” (Valerie Ramirez) – rising seas and increased flooding and typhoons; fatalities from natural disasters, more vector- and water-borne diseases, and mental illnesses; improving management of natural resources and disasters, involving communities in resilience planning, increasing renewable energy, and developing sustainable agriculture

  • “Pumalin National Park (Chile)” (Miguel Palacios) – more droughts and wildfires; fires destroyed homes and worsened air pollution in urban and rural areas; recommended maintaining forests, managing water better, reducing emissions from energy generation and vehicles, and controlling antibiotics in aquaculture

  • “Brazilian Rainforests” (Yuanyuan Ji) – heat and changing precipitation patterns add to impacts of deforestation; food insecurity, heat-related deaths, and respiratory infections; recommended expanding protected areas, involving local communities (like Juma Sustainable Development Reserve), monitoring of logging and farming, increasing sustainable agriculture, and engaging businesses

  • “W Biosphere Reserve (Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso)” (Nikolas Merten) – warming and droughts; food insecurity; land tenure reforms and community governance

Universities should use protected areas to teach the impacts of climate change on human health as well as ecosystems.  Students commented that they had not thought about how natural areas are protected by laws, how climate change has damaged a wide range of ecosystems, and how these changes have impaired human health in rural and urban areas around the world.  The analyses also gave students experience in formulating recommendations to reduce the harms to nature and humans.


Warren Lavey is a lawyer and adjunct professor at the University of Illinois (US), teaching environmental policy, health and law.  His courses range from classroom and online to clinics for clients around the world.  He has participated in various IUCN initiatives since 2014, and contributes to other environmental task forces and projects. You can reach him at