Protecting Health in a Changing Climate

by Linda Rudolph, MD, MPH

Originally posted on The White House website. Dr. Linda Rudolph is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for her work on the front lines to protect public health in a changing climate.

In 2004, I was the local health officer and public health director in Berkeley, California. We worked to improve children’s health by making it easier for kids to walk or bike to school, promoting better access to healthy foods through community gardens and local farmers markets, and reducing exposures to chemicals and pollutants that trigger asthma. Do you see the connections to climate change? I didn’t, at first.

But as California began tackling climate change, two things quickly became apparent to me. First, the impacts of climate change exacerbate many of our most serious health problems – the very chronic diseases I was seeing in all of the communities I served, and which were (and continue to be) especially prevalent in low income communities with limited resources for health care. Second, many of the strategies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and strengthen community resilience in the face of climate change are the very same strategies that help us to reduce obesity and chronic illness.

I now believe that climate change itself is the greatest health threat we face in the 21st century. I focus on climate change in my professional work, because if we don’t act urgently and comprehensively, climate change will undermine all our other public health efforts.  I’ve also started advocating for climate action as a private citizen, in my personal time, because to truly move the needle (or thermometer) on climate change, we must also engage the passion, activism and voice of every American.

People everywhere care about their health and about the health and well-being of their children and grandchildren. But health workers have a critically important role to play in addressing climate change.  We can connect the dots: warmer temperatures can mean higher ozone levels, longer pollen seasons, and more asthma and allergies. More droughts can mean higher food prices, greater food insecurity, and more obesity and diabetes.

Public health professionals can engage with community partners to identify assets and solutions that build community resilience and fight climate change at the same time. For example, parks and tree canopies soak up carbon and other pollutants, create safe places for kids to play and provide shade to help prevent heat illness. A healthy community design offers transportation options that increase physical activity, decrease air pollution and preserve nearby farmlands and open space.

We can find win-win solutions that fight carbon pollution and climate change, reduce health inequities, and improve the health of everyone in our communities, but it will take a different kind of public health work. It will require that we collaborate closely with those who work in transportation, housing, agriculture, and many other sectors, and that we engage deeply with people in the most vulnerable communities. All of us need to let our policy makers and leaders know that we need to act vigorously on climate change right now, to protect the health of our children, ourselves, our neighbors, and our communities.

My work has shown me that climate action can make our communities more vibrant, attractive and livable. It can make our food systems more diverse and sustainable, our air and water cleaner, and our communities greener and more walkable, all of which will have huge health benefits. In California, we’ve already begun to accomplish some of this, thanks to state climate change legislation championed across party lines and supported and strengthened by the involvement of public health professionals, community advocates and organizations, and residents of communities throughout the state. As a nation, we must do the same – work together to take climate change action that benefits our health now, and protects our health into the future.

Dr. Linda Rudolph is the Co-Director of Climate Change and Public Health Project at Public Health Institute.

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