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Public health taking action as climate change heats up

In July, scientists with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies released a startling finding: Each of the first six months of 2016 were the warmest occurrences of their respective months in modern history.

Then in mid-November, as higher temperatures continued around the globe, the World Meteorological Organization announced it was likely that 2016 would turn out to be the hottest year ever recorded.

The new findings emphasize what science has increasingly documented in recent years: Climate change is already affecting the environment — and it is increasingly causing harm to human health.

While some people think of climate change as something that is far off in the future, “it is impacting people right now,” according to APHA member David Fukuzawa, MSA, MDiv, managing director of the Kresge Foundation’s Health and Human Services Program. Through its environmental program, the foundation is working to help communities build resilience and protect public health in the face of climate change.

“The impact on human health needs to be elevated in the discussion on climate change,” Fukuzawa told The Nation’s Health.

Armed with growing evidence and calls for action, APHA declared in November that 2017 will be the Year of Climate Change and Health. Made possible in part through the support of the Kresge Foundation, the observance will be used to increase understanding on climate change by harnessing the strength of the public health and environmental workforce.

“We want APHA members to protect their communities from the health impacts of climate change,” said Natasha DeJarnett, PhD, MPH, APHA’s environmental health policy analyst. “To do that, we need to expand understanding.”

The Year of Climate Change and Health is being recognized at an important time in human history. As global temperatures continue to rise, public health officials are concerned about the link to human health, both now and in the future. From 2030 to 2050, about 250,000 additional people are expected to die every year from the effects of climate change, such as malnutrition, malaria and diarrhea, according to the World Health Organization.

If global emissions remain steady, by 2100, global temperatures could be 2.6-4.8 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has projected. And those temperatures may be underestimated, a new study warns. Published in November in Science Advances, the study predicts that a rise of 5.9 degrees Celsius is likely by 2100, based on the way carbon dioxide levels rise during warm weather.

Global temperatures in 2016 were already about 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, according to November’s preliminary data from the World Meteorological Organization.

“The only way out is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible,” said Tobias Friedrich, PhD, of the University of Hawaii’s International Pacific Research Center, who was lead researcher on the Science Advances study.

Global leaders are working to do just that under the Paris Agreement, a treaty that entered into force in November. As of Nov. 20, more than 110 countries and other parties had ratified the treaty, which has a goal of keeping the average global temperature rise from pre-industrial times below 2 degrees Celsius.

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U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, center, arrives Nov. 14 in Morocco to attend the COP22 climate change conference.

Photo by Evan Schneider, courtesy United Nations

While the U.S. committed to the Paris Agreement under President Barack Obama this summer and submitted its climate plan to the United Nations, America’s work to combat climate change is uncertain under the new presidential administration. Under his campaign energy plan, President-elect Donald Trump pledged to cancel the Paris Agreement and end Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which spells out ways in which the U.S. is working to cut carbon pollution.

At a Nov. 15 news conference, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he had spoken to Trump since the election about the importance of climate change and would be doing so again. Ban said he remained “very optimistic” about efforts to combat climate change.

“The global unity around climate change once seemed to be unthinkable, but now it has become unstoppable,” said Ban, who spoke at the conclusion of COP22, a session of the Conference of the Parties that served as the first official meeting of parties to the Paris Agreement.

Even if action on climate change does stall at the federal level, much can be accomplished at the state and local levels, according to APHA member Linda Rudolph, MD, MPH, co-director of the Climate Change and Public Health Project in the Public Health Institute’s Center for Climate Change and Public Health.

“Focusing on climate change now is the best opportunity for us to prevent the worst impacts,” Rudolph told The Nation’s Health.

Rudolph encouraged health advocates to work to preserve gains that have been made at the federal level, but to also look toward their communities and regions for action on climate change. She pointed to grassroots work in Oakland, California, last year that successfully led to the rejection of a coal export terminal, which could have affected the health of people both locally and around the world through its contributions to air pollution.

In California, which has taken significant action on climate change — such as setting strong greenhouse gas reduction targets and restricting pollutants — Gov. Edmund Brown Jr. said after the November elections that the state will continue to confront the issue. In a Nov. 18 joint statement with the governors of Oregon and Washington and the premier of British Columbia, Brown and the other leaders said they “will join with other like-minded cities, states and regions committed to action and lead this global fight.”

Also in November, a group of 37 U.S. mayors, representing 31 million residents, released an open letter to Trump calling for his partnership on addressing climate change but also vowing to move forward at the local level even without federal support.

“Simply put, we can all agree that fires, flooding and financial losses are bad for our country, that we need to protect our communities’ most vulnerable residents who suffer the most from the impacts of climate change and that we all need healthier air to breathe and a stronger economy,” wrote the mayors, who are supporters of the U.S. Mayors’ National Climate Action Agenda, which is working to strengthen local efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Residents of other states are taking action as well. Across the nation, local leaders and advocates are preparing for climate change and reducing vulnerability, according to a November report from Abt Associates.

Supported by funding from the Kresge Foundation, “Climate Adaptation: The State of Practice in U.S. Communities,” shared case studies from 17 communities that are taking steps to get ready for climate change. The climate adaptation report recommends that communities that have not started to prepare should do so now.

“Waiting does not guarantee more or better information, but it does waste valuable time, as vulnerability reduction is a long-term process,” wrote the report authors.

Climate year offers education resources

As part of the Year of Climate Change and Health, APHA will be sharing resources and educating its members about climate change. A supplement on climate change and health will be published by APHA’s American Journal of Public Health, and the Association will be creating new fact sheets and graphics to accompany the research in the issue.

The new information will be joining APHA’s existing lineup of materials, which include climate change webinars, reports and fact sheets created in conjunction with partners such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and ecoAmerica.

APHA will also be working to encourage members, researchers and advocates to share climate change information at APHA’s 2017 Annual Meeting and Expo in Atlanta, which has a theme of “Creating the Healthiest Nation: Climate Changes Health.” The call for abstracts is now open.

APHA member Sara Hoverter, JD, who is a leader of the Climate Change and Health Topic Committee within APHA’s Environment Section, said she was excited by APHA’s decision to declare 2017 as the Year of Climate Change and Health. Climate change effects are felt across public health, she told The Nation’s Health,and “we’re all going to be spending more time on it.”

The Section’s climate change committee has created resources to help APHA member groups plan their climate change-related Annual Meeting sessions. The resources are expected to be available via the committee’s page on APHA Connect, Hoverter said.

For fact sheets, infographics and other materials to share on climate change, visit www.apha.org/climate. For more information or to become a partner on the Year of Climate Change and Health, email environment@apha.org.