Are We Ready? Coping with health dangers

Survey shows U.S. public health system can better prepare for global warming's toll

A 2008 Environmental Defense Fund report, Are We Ready? Preparing for the Public Health Challenges of Climate Change [PDF], reveals critical gaps in our public health system’s ability to respond to growing health threats from climate change.

Alarmingly, funding for general public health preparedness has been steadily declining in recent years, with a 25 percent cut proposed in President Bush’s 2008 budget.

Climate change is already taking a toll on our health

A warming climate already contributes to disease and early deaths worldwide, as populations experience greater risks from extreme weather events, poor air quality and infectious disease.

The World Health Organization estimates that 150,000 people die every year from the effects of climate change, and millions more suffer from illness, malnutrition and other health problems due to a warming planet.

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions is essential to halting climate change, but global warming pollution can stay in the atmosphere for centuries. We need to prepare for continued impacts on public health.

We asked health directors how ready they are

How prepared is our nation’s public health system to cope with the public health challenges of climate change? As the “first line of defense,” what do public health departments need to be prepared? What can the public health community do to help prevent the more severe consequences of climate change?

To answer these questions, Environmental Defense Fund surveyed a representative sample of directors of local health departments from around the country, in collaboration with the National Association of City and County Health Officials and George Mason University. Just over 60 percent of the sample completed the survey. (For details, see the report [PDF].)

Key findings: U.S. health system generally not well prepared

Based on responses, our survey found that:

  • Most local health directors recognized that climate change is already occurring in their jurisdiction.
  • A majority thought that climate change is likely to affect one or more serious health problems in their jurisdiction over the next 20 years.
  • More than half felt climate change was an “important priority” for their health department.
  • Few reported that climate change was a top priority for their health department.
  • Most thought they lacked expertise to prepare for the public health dangers from a changing climate.
  • Most thought that state and federal public health agencies lacked the expertise to help them prepare for the public health dangers from a changing climate.
  • Most felt they lacked the resources needed to address climate-related health threats, with additional funding and staff most frequently cited.

Recommendations: Protect, prevent and enhance

Our recommendations can be summed up thus: protect, prevent and enhance.

Protect public health from climate change effects. We need to assure that our public health system is efficient, competent and responsive. To achieve this goal, the federal government should:

  • Sponsor a study to make recommendations for a public health system that can respond to 21st-century health threats, from climate change to emerging diseases and bioterrorist acts.
  • Increase funding for health systems to assess, monitor and rapidly respond to health and safety threats. For example, funding is needed to strengthen surveillance networks, develop adequate rapid response systems for extreme weather events, and train public health personnel.
  • Increase funding for research on climate change and health, to develop better climate and weather modeling on a local scale, to pinpoint vulnerabilities of specific communities, and to find effective ways to communicate climate-related health threats and how individuals and communities can best protect themselves.

Prevent climate-related health dangers by slowing global warming as much as possible. We must drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions to levels needed to avert dangerous climate change, including massive sea level rise, temperature increases, flooding and droughts.

The federal government should:

  • Adopt a strict limit on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and promote global reductions.
  • Fund research on how best to communicate with and motivate the general public to make changes in their daily lives that will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The public health and medical community should:

  • Educate policymakers on the costs of inaction and the public health benefits of steps to curb global warming pollution.
  • Study, develop and implement best practices for communicating with the general public to spur personal behavior changes.
  • Study, develop and adopt best practices for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from public health and health care facilities and operations.

Enhance public health by guiding climate change policies towards “win-win” situations. Align reducing greenhouse gas emissions with critical public health goals. For example, transportation policies that increase physical activity also address the obesity epidemic, and agricultural policies that reduce methane emissions can also improve nutrition.

The federal government should:

  • Ensure that representatives from public health agencies are on interagency committees that develop comprehensive climate change policies.
  • Assess the health co-benefits and potential harmful effects of major climate change policy initiatives.
  • Expand the resources of state and local public health agencies so that they may participate more effectively in state and local policy decisions.

The public health community should:

  • Seek opportunities to work with transportation, energy, agricultural, environmental and other state and local agencies.
  • Educate policy makers about the potential health co-benefits and harmful effects of climate change policies.

The bottom line is that being prepared for existing threats like bioterrorism and pandemic flu mesh with readying ourselves for health threats from climate change.

We can also curb overall health spending in this country through energy, transportation and nutrition policies that are double winners, serving climate and health goals. The old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” holds true.

Download the report

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PDF Format: Adobe PDF (917 KB)