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.