At this year’s APHA Annual Meeting, it was truly inspiring to see the level of interest and attention given to the connections between climate change and our health. The themes that emerged during the meeting are the themes that the public health community needs to keep at the center of discussions as we create events and materials for this year’s National Public Health Week, April 7–13.
Here are some of the themes I took away from the Annual Meeting:
Climate change is fundamentally a public health issue: In the present and not-so-far future, changes in local and regional climates will impact the work of the public health community in many ways. These range from our efforts to help residents prepare for more extreme heat, rainfall, hurricanes and wildfires, to the need to improve our surveillance techniques so climate change-related disease variations don’t fall off of our radars. The long-term consequences of unchecked growth in greenhouse gas emissions — the main contributor to climate change — have the clear potential to transcend modern public health concerns and threaten human societies more broadly and fundamentally.
Climate change will compound disparities in health on local, national and global levels: Globally, we are already seeing a disproportionate burden of climate change-related health impacts being borne by those countries that have contributed the least to the climate crisis. This can be clearly seen in this graphic of climate change health impacts in the year 2000 from the World Health Organization report, “Climate Change and Health: Risks and Responses.”
Note: DALY – or Disability Adjusted Life Years – reflects the total of years of life lost due to premature death plus the years of healthy life lost due to poor health or disability.
Climate change solutions can have both positive and negative public health impacts: Decreasing personal car use by increasing public transportation and physically active methods, such as walking and biking, is a clear win-win for public health: people get more exercise and emit less greenhouse gases. However some solutions, like increased use of the fuel alternative corn ethanol, may have unintended adverse public health consequences, such as increasing pressure on water resources.
The public health community must get involved in the major policy decisions being made about transportation, energy, housing and agriculture to ensure the public’s health is appropriately considered and protected.
— John Balbus, MD, MPH
2008 National Public Health Week Advisory Committee member and director of the health program at Environmental Defense