Climate Change and Public Health

Photo by Genie Gratto
Photo by Genie Gratto

Many believe that climate change presents us with opportunities to tackle multiple problems with a single well-designed response. The authors of this guest post suggest that public health presents one of those opportunities.

Public Health and Climate Change: A Shared Agenda

by Marice Ashe and Richard Jackson

Climate change may be the greatest threat to human health in this century. More intense heat waves will make bad air even worse. More severe droughts and floods will further imperil the water supply California is already struggling to protect. The world is going to see a rise in the number of water-, food-, insect- and animal-borne diseases we have to fight.

Who will suffer most? The elderly, children and the poor—populations that are least able to and can least afford to adapt to such extreme conditions. Although public health leaders have a responsibility to protect and enhance the well-being of the entire population—and especially those most at risk—we have lagged behind in considering climate change as one of the threats that we must confront.

In March, we released An Action Plan for Public Health: Initial Recommendations for Involving Public Health in Climate Change Policy, assembled after talking to more than 150 experts in public health, climate science and environmental law. We hope it helps the public health community think in new terms about their mission.

We must work faster, because making communities healthier can prevent climate change. For example, we work with communities all around California to create safe walking paths and bike routes throughout cities. We encourage these changes to prevent obesity and increase community safety. But when people get out of their cars, they also put less carbon emissions in the air. We call this a “co-benefit:” by taking one action to improve physical health, we gain other benefits to improve planetary health.

Other co-benefits happen when we encourage the development of new housing and retail centers close to public transit. This increases exercise while keeping people out of their cars. But why stop there? Transit-oriented development also preserves agricultural lands for food production and protects our food security. With anticipated changes in rainfall, agricultural pest and disease patterns will shift, too.  Safeguarding a regionally based and resilient food system should be a primary public health goal in addressing climate change.

We are working with communities to make it easier to hold farmer’s markets, get more healthy foods in corner markets, and increase fresh fruits and vegetables in schools. This is particularly critical in poor and under-served areas where it’s harder to find healthy and affordable food. The public health goal is to lower rates of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, which are epidemic in those communities. As a co-benefit, it expands opportunities for local and regional growers who bring the food a much shorter distance on the way to market, thus dropping transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions.

Improving public health will mitigate climate change, and fighting global warming will make people healthier. By approaching this impending public health disaster from many directions, we stand a better chance of making a real difference.

Marice Ashe, JD, MPH directs Public Health Law & Policy, which partners with advocates, health departments, and policy-makers to create healthier communities. PHLP provides in-depth research and analysis on legal and policy questions, and translates complex information into practical tools and model policies for community action.

Richard Jackson, MD, MPH is the Chair of the Environmental Health Sciences division of the UCLA School of Public Health. He is the former director of CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health and California State Public Health officer.  Dr. Jackson is a member of the PHLP Board of Directors.

Climate Change and Public Health 10 April,2009Craig Miller

3 thoughts on “Climate Change and Public Health”

  1. “Climate change may be the greatest threat to human health in this century.” Really? I could not find much justification in the report for the authors claims that:

    “More intense heat waves will make bad air even worse. More severe droughts and floods will further imperil the water supply California is already struggling to protect. The world is going to see a rise in the number of water-, food-, insect- and animal-borne diseases we have to fight.” I could not find any peer reviewed studies listed in the references to support these claims.

    I agree that good nutrition is one of the legs of the public health stool, and encourage the use of community farmers markets. If we can agree that nutrition a critical part of public health, I wondered why the government policy to turn food into fuel was not considered in this report. As the demand for corn increased the cost of food goes up, and it hurts the poor and those with less disposable income. Rising food prices can push a family into full blown poverty and starvation, especially when the choice is between eating and staying warm. When cold and hungry, no one cares about climate change.

    Federal ethanol-fuel policies forced consumers to pay an extra 0.5 percent to 0.8 percent in increased food prices in 2008, and the government itself could end up paying nearly $1 billion more this year for food stamps because of ethanol use, according to a new government report.
    The report by the Congressional Budget Office helps answer questions raised by Congress last year as food prices shot up, and some lawmakers questioned the effects of government policies, such as the ethanol mandate. “Producing ethanol for use in motor fuels increases the demand for corn, which ultimately raises the prices that consumers pay for a wide variety of foods at the grocery store, ranging from corn-syrup sweeteners found in soft drinks to meat, dairy and poultry products,” the CBO said. The CBO also pointed out that the reduction in CO2 was less than one-third of 1 percent.

    The greatest threat to human health is the rising cost of food, not climate change.

  2. Mr. Steele,

    You raise a very good and important point. The shift from corn to feed people to corn for biofuel production has had a severe impact on the price–and thus the availability–of food for poor people, especially those living in developing countries.

    I hope the public health community’s involvement can help us avoid these types of “unintended consequences.” Even well-intentioned climate change policy can have negative impacts on the health, nutrition, and livelihood of our most vulnerable populations. Policy ideas might meet one objective (reduce carbon emissions) but might actually harm other policy priorities (secure access to food).

    Public health professionals will bring a perspective to policy debates that will provide a more comprehensive evaluation of climate policy—including an analysis of the immediate health impacts of proposed measures as well as requirements for on-going monitoring to assess unanticipated health outcomes.

    This report is only the first step in an evolving health-based strategy to combat climate change. As Ms. Ashe and Dr. Jackson said, this is just one of many ways to approach this global crisis. Regardless of how we address it, the public health community must act now.

    Robin Salsburg, JD
    Senior Staff Attorney
    Public Health Law and Policy

  3. Robin, climate concerns were just a smokescreen for the ethanol fuel program. It was a farm subsidy, pure and simple.

    Also, note that the corn used for ethanol production would otherwise be food for cattle, not people. The entire system of devoting so much fertile ground to beef production is by itself something of a disaster, as is the consumption of the beef. paper on the subject.

    Russ, the report didn’t purport to be a survey of the public health literature relating to climate since public health professionals require no convincing on the science. There is a vast literature on the issues you highlighted, which can be accessed via Google Scholar. For a synthesis, although it’s now a couple of years out of date, see the IPCC report.

Comments are closed.


Craig Miller

Craig is a former KQED Science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to that, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.

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