By Kim Krisberg

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time. Climate change will affect, in profoundly adverse ways, some of the most fundamental determinants of health: food, air, water. In the face of this challenge, we need champions throughout the world who will work to put protecting human health at the centre of the climate change agenda.
— Margaret Chan, MD, MPH, director-general, World Health Organization, 2008

Human health may not be the first image that pops to mind when it comes to climate change. People often envision melting icebergs or desperate polar bears roaming through diminished habitats. But as public health folks well know, as the environment goes, so too does health.

So, what kind of challenges does climate change present for public health, and why should public health workers be a central voice in the climate change discussion? These questions and many more are covered in “Climate Change: Mastering the Public Health Role,” a new (and free!) guidebook released in April by the American Public Health Association. (Time for a quick tribute to transparency: I helped copyedit the new guidebook and have been working for APHA for many years, but am in no way being compensated for this blog post. I just think it’s a great guidebook on an emerging public health topic.)

The guidebook is actually a translation of a series of climate change webinars that APHA organized in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The webinars featured many of the nation’s leading experts on climate change and human health as well as the experiences of local health departments that have already begun planning for climate change. Tracy Kolian, deputy director of APHA’s Center for Public Health Policy, describes the guidebook as the “101 on public health and climate change” and emphasized that it’s intended to be a practical guidebook for public health practitioners.

The 80-plus page guidebook covers the issue’s diverse spectrum, from the basic science of climate change and its health impacts to climate change communication and action planning. Also included is a detailed breakdown of the regional health impacts expected in the United States. In general, some of the potential health impacts of climate change include more frequent and extreme weather events; increased pollution and related respiratory illness; and adverse effects on food and water supplies that result in disease and malnutrition.

Climate change is also expected to affect the distribution of weather-sensitive diseases, especially vector-borne disease. For example, as warmer weather moves to previously temperate regions, so too do disease-carrying ticks and mosquitoes. Here in the United States, many local health directors say climate change is already impacting their communities (this survey, conducted by the National Association of County and City Health Officials, Environmental Defense Fund and George Mason University, is referenced in the guidebook).

One of the most fascinating parts of the guidebook is about educating the public and communicating the risks of climate change. Research discussed in the guidebook found that people who understood that climate change wasn’t only bad news for the environment, but for human health, too, were also more likely to support policies that address climate change. According to the guidebook’s chapter on Climate Change Communication, the “public health community has an opportunity to reframe the discussion around climate change and to advance solutions that are both good for the Earth’s climate and good for people’s health.” As public health folks already have trusted and long-standing ties to their communities, it makes perfect sense to this blogger that they’d be perfectly situated to help people understand the complex global phenomenon on a personal level.

Research cited in the guidebook also found that info about the healthy co-benefits of confronting climate change could be quite compelling. A good example: Reducing dependence on motor vehicles and making it safer and more accessible for people to walk and bike not only helps reduce the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, but encourages physical activity, reduces the pollution that causes and irritates respiratory illness, facilitates social interaction, and addresses the rising obesity epidemic. Talk about getting a bang for your buck.

“Especially at the local level, public health people are already working in the community and can be the best messengers (of climate change information),” Kolian told me. “They can also be the best role models.”

To download a free copy of “Climate Change: Mastering the Public Health Role,” visit www.apha-environment.org/pdf/APHA_ClimateChg_guidebook.pdf.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance reporter living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for almost a decade. While her education is in journalism, her heart is in public health.

Comments

  1. #1 Ed Maibach
    May 19, 2011

    Hi Kim,
    Agreed, this is a terrific new resource from APHA and CDC. Last month, Matt Nisbet, Mindy Weathers and I released a climate change communication primer for public health professionals; it serves as a nice companion piece to the APHA/CDC guidebook. The primer can be downloaded for no cost at http://climate.gmu.edu.
    All the best,
    Ed Maibach

  2. #2 Dick Clapp
    May 19, 2011

    Hi Kim and Ed,
    In addition to your guidebook and primer, Pump Handlers might be interested in a new book by Paul Epstein and Dan Ferber called “Changing Planet, Changing Health.” It’s in part a memoir of Paul’s amazing career, that led him from primary care in low income neighborhoods in Boston, to tropical medicine in Mozambique (with his wife Andy), to the global health implications of climate change and the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard. In addition, Dan Ferber did some remarkable on-the-ground investigative work in Kenya and Honduras that documented specific evidence of health impacts of climate change. The book was reviewed by Dr. Tony McMichael in Nature on April 21, 2011. He calls the book “an excellent corrective for climate-change myopia.”