Climate change is having and will continue to have significant harmful impacts on human health. A 2009 article in The Lancet described climate change as perhaps “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.” The American Public Health Association (APHA) has called climate change an “urgent threat” to health, and has emphasized that local public health professionals will be on the front lines of dealing with the impacts of climate change. These threats to health from climate change require robust, comprehensive action that engages all levels of government. That is why the Public Health Institute has signed on in support of U.S. Representative Lois Capps’ Climate Change Health Protection and Promotion Act, which would give the Department of Health and Human Services the mandate to prepare the nation’s public health systems to address those impacts.
Congresswoman Capps’ legislation charges DHHS with developing a national strategic plan, and preparing public health and health care practitioners to deal with the effects of climate change on people’s health. The bill maps out the research, planning, training and communications activities required to do so. It is a forward looking approach to a major crisis that is, increasingly, upon us. For this reason, the Public Health Institute has joined with the APHA, the American Lung Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of County and City Health Officials, and other health organizations, in support of the bill.
Data about the direct health implications of climate change continues to accumulate. Heat-related deaths in New York City, a recent study finds, are likely to increase 20% by the 2020s, and 90% by the 2080s. In California, already a state with the “worst air quality in the nation,” air pollution currently causes 8,800 deaths per year; with current emission trajectories, climate change is predicted to increase the number of days conducive to forming air pollution by 75-80% in Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley. Lung health for allergy sufferers will also be affected as the spring pollen season starts earlier and lasts longer. The season for ragweed has already increased by as much as 27 days since 1995 in some places, and is producing more pollen even where the length of the season has remained the same. Higher temperatures are increasing vector-, food- and waterborne diseases in the U.S., such as West Nile Virus and Lyme disease, Salmonella and Giardia. Climate change also affects health indirectly, through droughts that damage crop yields, making healthy food less available or affordable; strain on fresh drinking water supplies; and through the short- and long-term dislocation of communities caused by extreme weather events such as Sandy or Katrina or by the loss of coastal communities due to rising sea levels.
To protect human health in the U.S. and globally, it is vitally important to address the causes of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Legislation such as California’s Assembly Bill 32 (2006) and the Climate Protection Act of 2013 proposed in the U.S. Senate, as well as regulations that could be implemented by the EPA, could all help to prevent further climate change and even greater harm to health.
But some of the effects of climate change are already well underway, and even halting emissions immediately will not protect us from all of them. While we must do everything in our power to prevent additional climate change, we must also prepare for the climate change already in progress. Capps’ legislation would allow us to do just that – plan for impacts to health that we know are coming, so that the U.S. is resilient and ready to face this challenge. Capps’ bill would give public health and health care professionals the tools and preparation they need to best protect our health as we weather a changing climate.