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30 more years — Robert Duval

man stands outside a large building, mostly clear blue sky

Robert Duval has been tracking climate change for 30 years, keeping tabs of the effects including melting ice caps, rising sea levels and increasingly disastrous weather events. 

Part of preventing people’s suffering has to do with health policy, and that’s where Robert Duval’s expertise enters the School of Public Health. Formerly a political science professor in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, Duval was recruited to the School of Public Health to become chair of health policy. With expertise in analytic research methods and statistics, Duval’s methods were easy to convert; the methods are the methods, after all.

He's served in administrative roles, as well as being faculty, but has kept a close eye on a public health threat he began teaching about 30 years ago—climate change. As most people ignored both the threat and his warnings, Duval kept track of melting ice caps, rising sea levels and ever-increasing disastrous weather events. The first class he taught drew about 20 students, with numbers ebbing and waning throughout the years; last semester, 34 students signed up.

“It’s my soapbox topic; I can talk about it with a lot of interest and try to get people engaged in it,” Duval said, noting people are starting to listen and react to changes they can see. “The most frightening words you can hear are ‘it’s happening much faster than we thought it would.’ And you hear it a lot.”

Still, that might be an improvement from the “we’ve got lots of time” sentiment that pervaded the political psyche for decades. Media reporting has become more visual and more urgent, showing receding Antarctic ice shelves, a melting Greenland and storm-drenched hillsides turning into landslides. The rise of viruses and infectious diseases can be part of a changing climate, as well. A changing climate compels people, and animals, to migrate. When they move, they bring their diseases to new areas with new populations vulnerable to infection. The Ebola and Covid-19 pandemics are very consistent with global climate change.

Public health professionals are the firewall between a vulnerable public and an untimely death, doing significant work that benefits a lot of people, most of it going unnoticed until something very visible goes wrong. Humans, being who they are, work against the grain by not paying attention as they lose touch with the science and the history of infectious disease, Duval said. As polio spread in New York City last summer, Duval said the virus once so feared in the 1950s that people stayed home from public events doesn’t affect most people who get it. But he remembers it well, as well as teaching with people here at WVU who’d had polio as children.

“We’re headed right back into that kind of world,” he said. “That’s really tragic.

“Most people have no clue how valuable public health is. Public health officials calmly point out that we’ve added 30 years to life expectancy in the last century or so; about five has been added by medical science and 25 has been added by public health because it is vaccinations, sanitation, sewage treatment and trying to control mosquitos. The implementation tool out there in the real world is the work of public health.”