It’s Time for Local Health Departments to Act on Climate Change
August 20, 2018 | Dr. Linda Rudolph, Center for Climate Change and Health | Originally posted on APHA's public health newswire
Climate change is happening now, is largely due to human activities and is amenable to action to slow its pace and reduce its effects. Our actions now will affect the magnitude of climate impacts and the extent to which communities thrive in the face of climate change and recover in the aftermath of climate-related disasters.
Climate change is a global phenomenon, but people and communities at the local level are now experiencing its consequences — from the direct impacts of wildfires, floods and heat to worsening air and water quality, changes in vector-borne disease patterns, adverse mental health outcomes and more. Climate change also acts as a threat multiplier, exacerbating poverty, environmental degradation, and political instability.
Two key aspects of climate vulnerability are pre-existing health status and living conditions. In the United States, these factors differ by place, race, and income. They are a result of inequities in the distribution of money and power, historical disinvestment in some communities, discriminatory practices over time, structural racism, higher pollution burdens and poorer access to health resources. Low-income communities, communities of color, indigenous populations, the very young and elderly and those with chronic illnesses are disproportionately impacted by climate harms, exacerbating existing health inequities.
The Role of Local Health Departments
Our energy, transportation, land use, housing, food and agriculture and socioeconomic systems are key drivers of both climate pollution and community living conditions. Interventions to address climate change and health inequities range from upstream structural, policy and system changes to downstream treatment, rehabilitation, and disaster recovery. Interventions along the entire spectrum are needed, but upstream solutions that slow and reduce climate change and improve living conditions will have the greatest health benefits. Many strategies to reduce climate pollution provide huge health and health equity benefits that will more likely be realized if local health departments, or LHDs, work in partnership with communities to promote climate action that builds healthy, equitable and sustainable communities.
LHDs have a critical role to play in addressing the urgent threat of climate change. They are the only local government entity with a duty to protect health and provide a trusted voice. They work in the communities that are most affected by climate change. And they can help policymakers and the public understand the breadth of climate-health impacts, the urgent need for climate action and how transformative changes can protect people and build healthy, equitable and sustainable communities in the era of climate change.
A New Resource for Practitioners
To fulfill the Institute of Medicine’s definition of public health — “what we, as a society, do collectively to assure the conditions for people to be healthy” — we must address climate change in all aspects of public health practice. That’s why we are thrilled that APHA and the Public Health Institute Center for Climate Change and Health have partnered, with funding from the California Department of Public Health and the Kresge Foundation, on a new publication — Climate Change, Health, and Equity: A Guide for Local Health Departments. This is a comprehensive resource that will help LHD leaders and staff to integrate climate change into the public health practice of their LHDs. It includes overviews of climate science, health effects of climate change, climate impacts on public health program areas and functions (e.g. chronic disease, communicable disease, preparedness, maternal and child health, surveillance, organizational capacity) and climate and health communications.
The guide provides many examples of and suggestions for what LHDs can do to integrate climate change into assessment and surveillance, intersectoral collaboration, community engagement and education and preparedness. We hope that it will help spread and build capacity for local health departments to address climate change, health, and equity as urgent and interconnected issues. Climate change is a public health emergency. We must act now.
Dr. Linda Rudolph is the Director of PHI's Center for Climate Change and Health