Local Public Health Confronting Climate Change in Communities

By Kevin G. Sumner, MPH, NACCHO President and Health Officer and Director of the Middle-Brook Regional Health Commission in Green Brook, New Jersey

The effects of climate change are visible in communities across the country, from increasingly severe storms (e.g., the recent “bomb cyclone” in the Plains and Midwest) to more frequent wildfires, record-breaking floods, and prolonged heat waves. These extreme weather events and corresponding changes to the ecosystem threaten the public’s health.

As traditionally cooler regions experience warmer and longer summers, for example, mosquitoes and other vectors are migrating north and infecting populations previously not at risk. According to the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, vector-borne diseases transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas, including Lyme disease and West Nile virus, tripled from 2004 to 2016.

Local health departments are uniquely positioned to confront these and other health outcomes of climate change in their jurisdictions. At the Middle-Brook Regional Health Commission, we are working with the New Jersey Climate Change Alliance, facilitated by Rutgers University’s Climate Institute and Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, to better understand the public health implications of climate change in New Jersey and to advocate for science-based policies and programs. In fact, we have an upcoming meeting focused on the relation between climate change and health equity. In addition, as part of our preparedness planning, we recognize that we are likely to be called upon more frequently to respond to natural events and disasters as a result of climate change. It seems we are responding to hurricanes or severe storm events on an annual basis. Climate change clearly has an impact on local health departments’ preparedness activities, communicable disease control measures, and efforts to improve the health of vulnerable populations.

NACCHO’s environmental health team educates local health departments about the health effects of climate change and offers steps to address those effects.

Here are a few of the ways NACCHO is supporting local health departments:

Climate and Health Adaptation Grants

With the support of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), NACCHO offered a funding opportunity to supplement local health departments’ ongoing climate change and health adaptation initiatives. In January 2019, NACCHO awarded the Boston Public Health Commission and the Marquette County Health Department in Michigan, each with $15,000 grants to use in climate and health projects through July 31, 2019.

Boston is using the grant to support the translation and printing of extreme temperature resource guides to reach all intended populations, particularly non-English speakers who may be the most vulnerable. NACCHO featured Boston’s climate change work in a recent blog post for National Public Health Week. Read more here.

Marquette County is developing a public health emergency response plan specifically addressing climate change-related localized flooding, which is predicted to increase in this rural locality.

Essential Actions for Climate Resilience in Local Health Departments

In 2018, NACCHO and its Global Climate Change (GCC) Workgroup developed a fact sheet on examining and addressing the local public health impacts of climate change: Essential Actions for Climate Resilience in Local Health Departments.

The essential actions are organized into five categories:

  • Learn – enhance climate literacy;
  • Participate and discuss – foster relationships in the community;
  • Collaborate – partner with organizations to plan for climate resilience;
  • Create – develop and implement a climate action plan; and
  • Reflect – define metrics and evaluate progress.

The actions complement the CDC’s Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE) Framework and align with the three core functions of public health (i.e., assessment, policy development, and assurance).

In developing this fact sheet, the GCC Workgroup placed an emphasis on health equity, recognizing the disproportionate risk that communities crippled by environmental injustices and socioeconomic inequities face from climate change.

Climate Change Success Stories from Local Health Departments

In 2017, NACCHO interviewed 11 local health departments to understand how cities and counties were preparing for the health impacts of climate change. This project sought to identify best practices and provide real-world case studies for other health departments to learn from and adapt.

These are a few of the accomplishments highlighted in the success stories:

  • The Green River District Health Department in Kentucky, identified local climate-related health indicators using a state grant and then conducted a community health assessment using those indicators.
  • The San Francisco Department of Public Health released the Climate and Health Adaptation Framework, the first comprehensive health adaptation plan for the City and County of San Francisco that is rooted in health equity and uses a place-based, data-driven approach to assessing climate change and solutions.
  • Austin Public Health developed a Community Climate Plan for communications and outreach that engaged 5,000 people through online discussions, community events, and group presentations and reached 500,000 people with educational content about climate through digital and advertising platforms.

See all the success stories here.

Policy and Advocacy to Address Climate Change

NACCHO’s Board of Directors has also approved the following policy statements related to climate change:

NACCHO advocates for funding for the National Center for Environmental Health including the CDC’s Climate and Health program. For several years, NACCHO has supported federal legislation that would require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to develop a national strategic action plan for addressing the public health impacts of climate change.

Learn more about NACCHO’s climate change work here, and visit NACCHO’s Toolbox to explore resources in the Climate Change Toolkit. Finally, I encourage you all to tell your stories to NACCHO, to your colleagues, and to the public about your work related to climate change to help raise greater awareness of the impact of climate change on the health of our communities.

To learn more about NACCHO’s work in climate change, click here.