Why Climate Change Is a Health Priority

by Laura Kate Bender, American Lung Association and Don Hoppert, American Public Health Association 

More and more Americans are realizing that climate change is a health emergency, in part because they have experienced its impacts personally.

Warmer temperatures are taking a toll on Americans’ health across the country and the links are clearer than ever. Hazardous air quality from wildfire smoke in the West; Lyme and other diseases spreading into new parts of the country; high ozone levels on more summer days; and the massive burden of extreme weather events, including life threatening disruptions in health care, are no longer hypothetical for too many American families.

But the bad news – that more and more Americans are realizing that climate change is a health emergency – is also the good news.

That’s because awareness of these impacts is also rising among the health and medical community leadership, who are stepping up their efforts to promote science-based solutions. And more people caring about climate and health means more people ready to find solutions.

Urgent action is needed to dramatically reduce the pollution that causes climate change to stave off the worst health impacts. What’s more, we also have to help communities deal with the impacts that are already here.

Enter Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Climate and Health Program, located in the National Center for Environmental Health. It’s the only federal program helping states, cities and tribes adapt specifically to the health impacts of climate change. It provides funding and expertise to help health departments use science to predict local health impacts, and then prepare programs to protect the health of those most at risk.

When people think of measures to adapt to climate change, they often think of physical infrastructure, like sea walls and storm-resistant housing. But there are additional, health-specific adaptation measures that communities can consider, too – such as heat wave warning systems, cooling centers, surveillance of climate-related diseases, monitoring to identify water contaminants, and physician education on how to identify emerging vector-borne diseases.

The Climate and Health Program currently funds 16 states, two cities, three tribes and three territories (covering 50 percent of the U.S. population). With this funding, Massachusetts has developed a vulnerability mapping tool; Maryland put together a climate change and healthy homes curriculum for community health workers; and New Hampshire educated day camp counselors and rural seniors on tick exposures. See more examples in APHA’s “Adaptation In Action II” report.

The work is critical, but communities’ need for assistance in adapting to climate change far exceeds the available funding. Thankfully, in response to a request from health and medical organizations, including several Coalition for Health Funding members, and with the support of many Members of Congress, House Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey and Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Rosa DeLauro included a 50 percent increase for the Climate and Health Program in the fiscal year 2020 “Labor-HHS” appropriations bill. The $15 million in programmatic funding is small in the context of the $4 trillion federal budget, but the increase is an improvement from recent years, when some members in the House actually attempted to terminate the program.

If agreed to by the Senate, the extra funding will serve two important purposes. First, it will allow CDC to fund additional cities and states. Second, it will allow CDC to better evaluate the existing grantees’ work to share best practices with communities nationwide.

However, none of this will be possible without a broader budget deal to increase federal spending. If Congress does not come together with a bipartisan agreement to #RaiseTheCaps, this and other programs will be subject to an across-the-board spending cut that would slash funds for climate and health work at exactly the time when increased investment is most critical.

Please join the call to #RaiseTheCaps and join the growing ranks of health and medical professionals calling to protect our health from climate change. We need to invest in protecting our neighbors—especially those most at-risk—from these harmful impacts.