When people think of climate change, they tend to think of it as a science and environmental issue. But climbing levels of greenhouse gases, particulate matter, and rising seas hurts more than the environment. It harms people’s health, too.
“Climate change is one of greatest public health threats of our time,” said Anne Kelsey Lamb of Oakland’s Public Health Institute.
Lamb was talking to a roomful of her own in a gathering this week when some 100 public health professionals from around the state and beyond were in Oakland to learn more about the intersection between climate change and public health — and what they can do about it.
While it’s impossible to tie any specific illness or death to climate change, it’s easy to imagine how the worst effects of global warming harm health. Here are just a few examples: deaths related to heat waves (140 people died in the 2006 heat wave in California); a warming planet also leads to more pollen, which aggravates asthma; and climate change can mean more mosquitoes and an easier spread of the diseases they can transmit.
Who will bear the brunt of these changes? Climate change “threatens to exacerbate existing inequities,” said PHI’s Linda Rudolph, disproportionately impacting people who are poor and people of color.
Rudolph is the co-director of PHI’s Climate Change and Public Health Project, and she’s aiming to start a movement. There’s been “no coherent strategy,” she said, from the health community on climate change. “There’s a critical window of opportunity right now,” she said. “We can seize that opportunity to build a movement to reduce climate change and build healthy communities or stick our heads in the sand.”
With that, she unveiled a “framework” to help public health professionals see where they could make a difference. Fair warning before you click, the framework is something only a public health professional could love. Initially it made about as much sense to me as this circuit board, but once Rudolph walked us all through it, I started to be able to follow the paths, too.
The main takeaway, Rudolph argued, is that there are all kinds of levers along the climate trajectory where public health folks can do their jobs and achieve “co-benefits.” For example, “urban greening” can lead to better air quality — but it also leads to higher property values and green space for physical activity, which both improve a neighborhood and give individuals the space to lead more active lives. Or think of getting people out of their cars urging them to bike or walk where they need to go. Fewer cars on the road means less air pollution — and people out of their cars and moving improves health.
“The health co-benefits are a huge piece” that needs more attention, said Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the California Department of Public Health.
Perhaps the greatest challenges come in moving “upstream” — toward policy and systemic changes, which can “affect the root causes of climate change,” Rudolph said.
But it’s not easily accomplished. This work is “really complex, really challenging,” Chapman said. But the more “we’ve been able to tie climate change to health impacts, the more public health gets on board.”