Expert brings public health into climate change

by Stephanie M. Lee

Cross posted from SFGate

Temperatures are intensifying. Sea levels are climbing. Wildfires are spreading.

None of this is news to Dr. Linda Rudolph, a Bay Area expert on climate change. What worries her most, however, are the human health disasters that global warming may end up unleashing.

As a former director at California’s public health agency and now a leader at the Public Health Institute, an Oakland nonprofit, Rudolph has devoted herself to figuring out how state and local governments should handle the health risks of a warmer planet – heatstroke, respiratory diseases, even scarcer nutritious food.

For her efforts, Rudolph, 62, of Oakland was among 11 national experts on the subject honored by the White House last month.

“She has really taken her understanding that when things like water and air quality get worse, things like asthma and heatstroke also get worse,” said Manal Aboelata, a managing director at the Prevention Institute in Oakland, which sometimes partners with Rudolph’s group.

“She has really systemically worked agency by agency in state government to identify strategies that each of them can do to make it healthier and safer in the environment for Californians,” she said.

Rudolph is convinced her work won’t be finished for quite some time.

“Climate change itself is really the greatest threat we face in the 21st century,” she said, “and if we don’t act urgently and dramatically to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will undermine many of our other public health efforts and have many grave health consequences.”

Signs and concerns

While California, along with the rest of the world, may be years away from feeling the full brunt of global warming, signs already point to potential consequences for the environment and, subsequently, humans.

Worldwide, rising temperatures may result in mild heat rashes or deadly heatstroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ground-level air pollution caused by higher temperatures could damage lungs and aggravate respiratory illnesses such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Further down the line, droughts could end up reducing clean water and agricultural production, which would mean higher food prices and food shortages. Changing temperatures could also affect the migration patterns of insects and animals carrying diseases.

Floods from rising seas are another potential hazard, and not just because they can drown and injure people. Saltwater could spoil drinking water or soil used to grow food.

Those scenarios are all possible in California, where average annual temperatures have climbed by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895 and coastal sea levels have risen an average of 7 inches in the past century, a state agency said this month.

Rudolph, who earned her medical degree from UCSF and a master’s of public health from UC Berkeley, first got interested in global warming in the mid-2000s. As director of Berkeley’s public health department, she worked to promote access to fresh food and to reduce asthma triggers.

“It became apparent to me, in talking with people in the city staff who were working on climate change, that climate change was going to exacerbate the very same chronic diseases that I was working to prevent,” she said.

Health strategies

From there, Rudolph became director of the Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, which is part of the state’s Department of Public Health.

In 2008, as California was developing its strategy to cope with global warming, she helped write a report that suggested ways to improve people’s health while easing up on greenhouse gas emissions.

It encouraged communities to build and improve biking and walking paths, and boost public transit and park space. For relief in sweltering temperatures, the report encouraged cities to add more trees, canopies and other shade structures and expand access to air conditioning, which the authors acknowledge could lead to increased emissions.

“There’s a lot of steps we can do to reduce risk of heat illness,” Rudolph said.

Another important part of California’s fight against climate change has been the Global Warming Solutions Act. Also known as AB32, the act implemented a cap-and-trade program that puts a statewide limit on greenhouse gas emissions. As the limit is reached, the state would set a new limit, leading to steady emission reductions.

Rudolph’s job was to lead an analysis of the program’s health effects. She and her team found that the policy could improve health if revenue from the program went to projects that benefit communities throughout the state burdened with geographic, socioeconomic and health disadvantages.

A new role

This year, Rudolph left the public health department to join the Public Health Institute as co-director of the Climate Change and Health Project. In addition to teaching municipal health departments about climate change, she is giving out $60,000 in grants to three organizations that will educate the public about the situation.

Former colleagues see Rudolph as an energetic leader equally at home in science and policy.

“She has brought public health into climate change,” said Bruce Pomer, executive director of the Health Officers Association of California, which used to include Rudolph on its board of directors.

Larry Cohen, executive director of the Prevention Institute, described her as “someone who can talk about complexity in a way that’s simple.”

“She understands perhaps better than anyone how there are so many parts of government that may not appear to be directly related to health – like transportation and zoning – but really do have an impact on health,” he added.

Rudolph figures every little bit counts in both her professional and personal lives. That’s why she frequents farmers’ markets and participates in, a grassroots environmental justice organization. For the past nine years, she has left her car in the driveway and biked to work.

“Climate action has to happen at every level” – all the way from local to international, she said. “It’s too big a problem for any one agency to take on by itself. There really requires unified and concerted action on the part of all of us.”


Stephanie M. Lee is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: slee@sfchronicle.comTwitter: @stephaniemlee

Blog posts