Health Agencies Need Help Preparing for Climate Change

Public health officials in the United States have their hands full responding to climate-related disasters, and there’s no end in sight. In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, several southeastern states have public health emergencies due to sewage-laden floodwaters, debris covered in moldtoxic industrial air releases and chemical spills, and more. As the West burns, Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services is warning people about a “hideous brown [smoke] spiral of misery and despair.” At the same time, the Department must help cover the state’s fire suppression costs by proposing cuts to its own budget. And in San Francisco, health officials are investigating the recent heat deaths of three elderly people in order to develop better protection protocols.

The Texas National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard assisting a medical evacuee during Hurricane Harvey

Texas National Guard

The mounting strain on health agencies makes this news from Washington especially timely: The bicameral “Climate Change Health Protection and Promotion Act of 2017,’’ sponsored by Senator Ed Markey and Representative Matt Cartwright, “directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop a national strategic action plan and program to assist health professionals in preparing for and responding to the public health effects of climate change.” 

Fully implemented, this commonsense bill would have several benefits.

  • Boosting the capacity of state and local health agencies. The Act encourages federal scientists and agencies to more widely and effectively share their vast technical knowledge with states and localities. At the same time, the Act promotes local workforce development.
  • Science-based decision-making. The Act recognizes the established science that climate change is real and bad for our health. It also recognizes, however, that officials need continued research and data collection to develop the best solutions to climate-related health problems.
  • Helping the most vulnerable. Rising seas, increasingly frequent heat waves, stronger storms, and more widespread diseases threaten all Americans, but we won’t all be equally harmed. The Act emphasizes protection for the communities and populations most sensitive to climate change, including children, pregnant women, and people in poverty.
Hurricane Irma evacuees from St. Maarten, Puerto Rico

New York National Guard

This legislation offers critical help to the many state and local health agencies lacking funding, knowledge, and specialized skills to prepare for a future surge in climate-related health problems. In fact, the level of preparedness at health agencies seems to have dropped in recent years, with one study finding a decline from 2008 to 2012 in the capacity to engage in climate adaptation programming.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt made headlines after Hurricane Irma by saying it’s "insensitive" to mention climate change as disasters unfold. But public health agencies can’t wait for a mythical perfect moment to plan. That’s particularly true against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back health safeguards, reject established science, and weaken existing protections for communities in need. The Climate Change Health Protection and Promotion Act is an opportunity for Congress to support our hard-working health officials, and to make America a healthier nation—even as our climate gets hotter, wilder, and more dangerous.

About the Authors

Juanita Constible

Special Projects Director, Climate & Clean Air program

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