U.S. Climate Change Science Program Must Focus on Health, Experts Say

Program Undergoing Internal Reorganization under Obama Administration

February 23, 2009
Jennifer Andreassen, 202-572-3387, jandreassen@edf.org
(Washington – February 23, 2009)  The U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) must make public health a strong focus as it undergoes an internal reorganization under the Obama administration, say leading medical experts, health and environmental groups.
A memorandum signed by 22 medical experts and 10 groups recommends that CCSP correct the program’s historic “relative under-emphasis…on human health and human dimensions in general” and instead address “the important and growing gaps in knowledge and practice.”
The 10 groups that signed the memo are: the AmericanAcademy of Pediatrics, American Nurses Association, American Public Health Association, Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, Children’s Environmental Health Network, Environmental Defense Fund, Medical Care Section of the American Public Health Association, National Association of County and City Health Officials, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
The memo, whose lead author was Dr. John Balbus, chief scientist for Environmental Defense Fund and a member of the Institute of Medicine Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research and Medicine details six specific recommendations to CCSP:
  1. Explicitly state that one of the core goals of CCSP is the prevention of harm to human health due to climate change. Climate change poses a risk for U.S. populations, with uncertainties limiting the ability to quantify the projected number of increased injuries, illnesses, and deaths attributable to climate change. The extent of these uncertainties can be reduced with additional research.
  2. Describe baseline conditions with respect to climate-sensitive risk factors, health outcomes, and current and planned public health interventions. Robust environmental monitoring and health surveillance data from across the United States are essential to analyze and track climate-sensitive health problems, such as asthma, infectious gastroenteritis, and vector-borne diseases.
  3. Prioritize understanding and ameliorating the contribution of health disparities among subpopulations in the US to climate change vulnerability. While there are studies that provide assessments of population and individual risk factors for specific health outcomes, very few associate these health risk factors with local socioeconomic, geographic, and climate change-related risk factors.
  4. Develop and promote the implementation of standard methods for national, regional, and local health impact assessments for climate change. The current practice of using multiple units (e.g., use of different temperature scales), time frames, and baseline measures (e.g., underlying health status) among different assessments prevents easy comparisons. 
  5. Develop a research program and set of standard methods for assessing the health impacts (both co-benefits and unintended harms) of interventions in energy, transportation, agriculture, and housing intended to mitigate or adapt to climate change.  The disease burden affected to some degree by decisions in the energy and transport sectors is very large. Decisions made by water and agriculture agencies, including those made in response to climate change, also have the capacity to increase or decrease risks from a range of infectious diseases, undernutrition, and other health risks.
  6. Improve training of federal, state, and local health department personnel in the human health risks of and public health responses to climate change. The current public health system is greatly challenged to keep up with existing levels of health threats, including climate-sensitive ones. Additional training and capacity building are necessary to prepare public health professionals to deal with the urgent threats of climate change.