Mind the Gap: Climate-Health Preparedness in the U.S. Needs More Support

When I moved to New York City, "mind the gap" was one of the first really useful warnings I learned - namely don't get too close to the subway platform edge or the oncoming train could ...well, do some untoward harm to you or someone you cared for. Such harm never happened because I heeded the warning - and I love New York, as they say, so I want to stick around a long time to enjoy its splendors.

But now that I'm doing global warming and health research at NRDC, I'm concerned about getting the word out on another set of hazards, namely the range of health risks associated with climate change - including more frequent heat waves, worsening air pollution, and increasing incidence of diarrheal diseases. And a new paper well worth reading has just been released online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives (or EHP).

The paper is written by environmental health researchers from American universities, NGOs and consulting firms, including all seven co-authors of the "Human Health" chapter of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program's Analysis of the Effects of Global Change on Human Health and Welfare and Human Systems which came out in July 2008. The government itself called that peer-reviewed report "the most up-to-date synthesis and assessment of scientific literature on the impact of global change on human health" in the US. (Some of my own research on heat-related and ozone-related mortality under a changing climate was referenced in that chapter.)

"The preparedness gap" means the gap between what's needed to prepare to cope with global warming's health risks vs. the capacity that we actually have on hand right now. According to the new EHP paper this includes lack of infrastructure to monitor & report climate-sensitive health outcomes, lack of some fundamental understanding of baseline relationships (in part because of lack of investment in long-term data collection), and lack of tools to help policymakers prioritize research and preparedness programs that deal with climate and health.

The article details the amount of actual, directed federal funding that's been dedicated to research on climate-health impacts. The authors found that less than $3 million per year has been spent in extramural federal funding, while broader definitions that included research somehow related to climate and health had previously suggested far more generous amounts-- $164 million or more-- were spent annually. The authors then go on to explain why $200 million or more is really needed each year:

  • Restoring the nation's weakened environmental surveillance and health monitoring system would cost $100 million or more annually, a step that's vital to allow for early warnings of environmental health emergencies. (A 2008 NRDC report on US health monitoring programs details some much-needed changes.)
  • $1-2 million could help develop a software tool to help state and local health departments project risks of climate change - and no such model now exists.
  • Results of recent surveys reveal that many of the nation's public health officers feel unprepared regarding climate change, saying their departments need additional funding, staff and training to respond in an effective way.

Kind of like standing at the edge of a subway platform and seeing a big train coming, but not being able to move fast enough to get out of its way...

The new Omnibus bill includes $7.5 million for climate & health research at CDC for FY'09, certainly a tremendously positive step in the right direction- especially given the languishing state of climate-health dedicated funding in prior years. However, we are just getting started in terms of what we need to do to strengthen our nation's public health infrastructure. The EHP researchers recommend investment in four research areas:

  • Characterize observed weather/climate and health associations
  • Identify effects of climate change on health already happening in the U.S.
  • Develop & use models to project future climate-health impacts in the U.S.
  • Prioritize, implement & evaluate adaptation options

NRDC is advocating for additional funding to the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) in FY'10 so that they can apply their climate-health expertise to: 

  • Establish a Research Coordinating Center at CDC
  • Establish a Interagency Task Force on Climate Change & Health
  • Support State & Local Preparedness
  • Create Academic Research Centers of Excellence

Stay tuned for more updates on NRDC's climate-health preparedness work, and please do mind this gap! It affects us all, especially the next generations -- our children and grandchildren -- who'll have to deal with even more health issues exacerbated by a changing climate.