Is protecting people’s health from climate change really that controversial?

by Anne Kelsey Lamb, MPH and Linda Rudolph, MD, MPH

As originally appeared in the Congress Blog of The Hill November 7, 2013

Last week, the president created a “Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.” Like the carbon pollution standards for coal- and gas-fueled power plants under development by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the task force is another step in the rollout of the administration’s Climate Action Plan, and like the EPA standards, it is a lightning rod for controversy.

But from a public health perspective, these steps are no-brainers. The evidence that climate change will have devastating effects on human health is clear. The time to act is now.

A just-released report from the California Water Resources Board announced that California had less rainfall in 2013 than in any year since it started tracking rainfall 90 years ago. In a state where water issues are already hotly contested, these drought conditions pit California farmers, who produce nearly half of US-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables, against thirsty communities up- or downstream. We depend on both nutritious foods and clean water for good health, so when a changing climate reduces water supply it’s a lose-lose situation.

Last week was also the anniversary of Super Storm Sandy.  More than 280 people lost their lives, a staggering 365,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and at least 40,000 families have needed FEMA rental assistance from just one extreme weather event, the outsized effects of which were largely attributable to sea level rise due to climate change.

Rising temperatures wreak havoc with air quality, increasing ground level ozone, a major component of smog. Already, an estimated 126 million Americans live in counties that do not meet national air quality standards. Climate change is projected to increase the number of air quality “Red Ozone Alert” days by 68 percent in many major U.S. cities, increasing asthma, other respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and mortality.

These are just a few examples. Others include the rise and spread of vector-borne diseases such as dengue fever and West Nile virus, heat illness from extreme heat days, and, paradoxically, increased obesity as crop yields fall, food prices rise, and nutritious foods become less accessible to working families. Low-income communities and communities of color — already facing significant health disparities—will be hit hardest by climate change.

We have to work, simultaneously, to prevent climate change by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions to avoid worst-case scenarios, and prepare for it by making our communities more resilient against the impacts we face even under best-case scenarios.

For those of us in public health, where science and evidence propel decision making, climate change is not controversial – and addressing it just makes good sense. Public health saves lives by identifying and intervening in disease outbreaks, by protecting people from secondhand smoke, by ensuring our children are vaccinated. Saving lives by preventing and preparing for the health impacts of climate change is no different. Addressing climate change pays off in the long run, and can also have immediate benefits for health – creating cleaner air, more walkable communities, healthier foods and more sustainable farms.

We can start by supporting the EPA’s proposed regulations for carbon emissions from new power plants and forthcoming regulations for existing power plants. We need everyone who cares about health to make sure these set strong standards and are effectively implemented. But that’s not enough. We need to make sure that local, state, and federal leaders understand that climate change exacerbates all our other health issues, and that they need to think about climate change, health and equity in every action and decision they take. We must act now to prevent catastrophic climate change, so that we can protect the health and well-being of our children and grandchildren. Is that really something controversial?

Lamb, MPH, directs the Public Health Institute’s Regional Asthma Management and Prevention program, a 2007-2012 CDC Center of Excellence; Rudolph, MD, MPH, is former deputy director of the Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the California Department of Public Health, and was recognized as a public health and climate change Champion of Change by the White House.  Both are co-directors at PHI’s Center for Climate Change and Health.

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