The Impact of Climate Change on Health and Equity

Jun 22, 2016, 9:00 AM, Posted by Alonzo L. Plough

Tackling the daunting health effects of climate change requires community leaders from all sectors to work together to meet the needs of everyone, especially the most vulnerable.

It’s been nearly 10 years, but I still remember the deadly heatwave that hit California back in July 2006 and claimed hundreds of lives.

The blistering heat lasted for 10 days, with temperatures soaring as high as 119 degrees—the highest ever recorded in Los Angeles County. The number of heat-related deaths was estimated to be as high as 450 across nine counties, including Los Angeles County.

During the five years that I worked as director of emergency preparedness and response for the Los Angeles County Department of Health, we constantly battled the health effects of really hot days, wildfires and droughts.

These weather phenomena directly impact health—and they are all linked with global climate change. Just this past weekend, during a trip to Yosemite National Park, President Obama noted, “Climate change is no longer a threat—it’s a reality.”

The people at greatest risk of serious harm from these climate change-related events include children, the elderly, people with chronic health conditions, the economically marginalized and communities of color.

Those who are already vulnerable—who live in communities where standing water (a breeding ground for vector-borne diseases) after heavy storms is not uncommon, where air quality is bad and where buildings tend to be older and poorly maintained—also stand to be most affected by climate change.

At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), we recognize the serious health consequences of climate change. Extreme heat, for example, can exacerbate asthma, trigger heart attacks and strokes and lead to death. Droughts affect food production and prices, and can contribute to increased malnutrition and undernutrition.

We know that to build a Culture of Health, the nation must deal with the consequences of climate change with a focus on the most vulnerable or at-risk. Indeed, one way we will measure our nation’s progress toward a Culture of Health is by looking at the policies and measures that state and local governments put in place to ready communities for unavoidable climate change—whether that’s ensuring health care, public health and social services systems are ready to respond to and manage the illness, injuries and other effects brought on by acute climate change events or establishing standards for air quality, targets for emissions or requirements for housing development to mitigate climate change and benefit health.

Over the years, we have invested in efforts to address the health impact of climate change, focusing our work on:

  • Ensuring emergency preparedness and response. Climatic changes such as extreme heat, severe storms, flooding, drought and sea level rise pose real threats to New Jersey’s built environment and natural environment, as well as the health of its residents. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Sustainable Jersey developed action plans for local municipalities to help them confront climate change-related impacts. With plans in place, local communities are ready to respond to short-term emergencies brought about by extreme heat, drought and flooding and begin taking steps to improve their community’s overall resiliency.
  • Strengthening community resilience. A new $10 million grants program with The Gulf Research Program (GRP) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine will fund projects that enhance the science and practice of coastal community resilience in the Gulf of Mexico region. Rather than focus on infrastructure needs or the built environment, the new grants program will support the study of the human dynamics—such as physical and mental health, social cohesiveness and social and economic well-being—that influence a community’s ability to respond to adverse events.
  • Designing healthy communities. With support from RWJF and the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Minnesota Department of Health is creating a toolkit to help public health departments, city planners and others conduct health impact assessments on proposed climate change projects and policies.
  • Encouraging environmental stewardship. With a grant from RWJF, Health Care Without Harm identified a series of environmentally sound practices and policies—such as removing harmful toxins and reducing waste—that can help hospitals and doctors offices not only reduce their environmental footprint, but also protect the health and safety of patients and health care workers.

As we’ve gone about this work, we have also looked abroad to understand how cities and nations around the world have begun adapting to emerging climate change problems. A recent collection of essays edited by New York University’s Eric Klinenberg, shares such insights. For example, in Buenos Aires, rapid urban development and rising energy consumption has taxed the local power grid beyond its capacities. The Argentinian capital is working to prevent blackouts during summer heat waves through initiatives such as curbing electricity consumption in public buildings and incentivizing local industry and service companies to improve energy efficiency. These stories provide useful lessons for communities in the United States—whether coastal or inland, urban or rural, rich or poor—as they take steps to mitigate climate change.

One thing is clear from these efforts: tackling the effects of climate change requires that leaders from all sectors of a community work together. That includes health care, public health, community development, housing, urban design, environmental safety, business and more. And it requires leaders who understand how to problem solve across sectors and meet the needs of the most vulnerable.

When we can find ways to address climate change alongside other sectors, we can expect better health, stronger communities and greater equity in health and well-being. That’s a triple win.

Alonzo L. Plough, PhD, MPH, is vice president, Research-Evaluation-Learning and chief science officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Read his full bio.