If Americans understood the potential personal health effects climate change poses, their motivation to take action would most likely accelerate. The problem, as this New York Times article points out, is knowing which people will be afflicted with what climate-change-induced health concern. How to address treatment — each affliction being very different — is an extremely difficult challenge. Public health institutions are realistically acknowledging these hurdles, but recognize that as champions of public health protection, they must address this issue and work to “get a seat at the table” on policy discussions and public outreach.
The Baffling Nexus of Climate Change and Health
Meteorological and ecological shifts driven by climate change are creating a slow and often unpredictable bloom of novel public health challenges across the United States. The American Public Health Association has declared climate change “one of the most serious public health threats facing our nation,” although the precise nature of that threat remains uncertain.
“This is a relatively research-poor area,” said John Balbus, a senior adviser on public health at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. In 1999, the nation’s first reported cases of West Nile virus spurred interest in the subject, but this soon faded.
Then in 2007, the release of the Fourth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change laid out the scientific consensus on the foundation and widespread consequences of climate change. That “gave public health more confidence to again move forward,” said George Luber, associate director for climate change at the Centers for Disease Control.
The C.D.C. formally established its climate and health program in 2009, and the National Institutes of Health followed suit in 2011.
The short-term challenge, Dr. Balbus said, is making it clear that climate change is not a separate field but rather a background constant with far-reaching health implications. “Just like diet or air pollution, climate influences a whole lot of other factors,” he said.
Infectious disease, waterborne and foodborne pathogens, air pollution, allergies, violent weather and extreme heat waves are all public health concerns potentially affected by climate change. Discerning the degree of this effect, however, means tracing a tortuous path between global climate trends and intensely local demographics and epidemiology.
“Vulnerabilities change tremendously by location,” said Dr. Luber, who cited the different risk profiles of Boston, Miami and Phoenix as an example. So the C.D.C. is working with 18 states to develop regional adaptation plans for emerging public health risks. That involves integrating environmental data like surface temperature and land-use type with social and economic data to create a map of future public health vulnerabilities.
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