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.