Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina is sick of dealing with the rising costs of climate change. During the opening plenary of last week’s National Adaptation Forum in Madison, Wisconsin, the blue-collar California town official said:
“What keeps me awake at night is 25-foot surf, 50 mile-an-hour northwest winds, and rising seas … What my nightmare is? Is already happening.”
Mayor Dedina has an unpalatable choice when Imperial Beach floods: pay to clean up flooding that contaminates the city’s streets and beaches with raw sewage, or pay for programs that improve the overall health and well-being of constituents. “That’s money we don’t have,” he said.
The cascading health impacts of climate change were woven through much of the three-day National Adaptation Forum. But since this was a crowd focused on solutions, conference-goers also shared what they’re doing to help people stay healthy in the face of the present and future harms of climate change.
Three key themes emerged from the sessions I attended at the National Adaptation Forum.
1. Public health officials need to work hand-in-hand with other sectors.
Dr. John Balbus, with the National Institutes of Health, observed that climate adaptation practitioners from multiple sectors need to work together to protect human health. That’s because many of the solutions to climate-related health threats lie outside the immediate jurisdiction and expertise of public health officials. It’s also because adaptation in other sectors—like water, waste management, and housing—have health implications.
Most health professionals aren’t trained to work across sectors. But help is coming! Paul Schramm with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Climate and Health program alerted the crowd to a new guide on this very topic that will be available soon for health department staff.
2. With more support, public health agencies could protect even more people from climate change.
Schramm pointed out that many public health departments don’t prioritize climate change threats because they are dealing with many competing problems, have legal or institutional barriers to action, or lack basic knowledge about climate change and its health harms.
That’s where the CDC plays a critical role. Its Climate and Health program is the only direct federal investment in health adaptation to worsening storms, wildfires, and heat. More than half of the program’s budget goes directly to states, cities, territories, and tribes working to protect human health. The CDC also produces an array of resources to strengthen the nation’s capacity to deal with climate change.
But America’s public health sector needs a lot more help. CDC’s Climate-Ready States and Cities Initiative only has the budget for deep and sustained support for 16 U.S. states and two cities—and that budget has to be reauthorized annually by Congress. Furthermore, the CDC’s overall budget has been cut 10 percent over the last decade, with implications for the more than 3,000 health agencies it supports across the nation.
Presentations at last week’s National Adaptation Forum and earlier analyses prove that the CDC’s climate and health funding makes a difference. For example, EcoAdapt’s Rachel Gregg shared part of an upcoming report showing that CDC has helped states like North Carolina test an emergency heat alert system for at-risk individuals and families.
3. Ask communities what they need—and look to them for leadership.
Multiple speakers called for adaptation practitioners to do something both simple and hard: Talk to the people they serve.
Climate adaptation largely has to happen at the local level. Public health and climate data—even when available—don’t adequately express the lived experience of people dealing with climate disruption on top of other challenges such as racism, financial insecurity, and chronic health conditions.
For instance, Leah Bamberger shared how the City of Providence, Rhode Island started developing its upcoming Climate Justice Plan with simple conversations. They asked residents questions such as: “Is there anything in the community that’s making you sick?” And: “How do you stay cool in the summer?”
By listening carefully to city residents, Providence officials identified community priorities that wouldn’t have necessarily emerged from number crunching alone.
Finally, the NAACP’s Jacqueline Patterson was one of many speakers who urged conference participants to treat community members as leaders, not just cheap sources of information. For instance, Chieftess Queen Quet pointed out that the Gullah/Geechee Nation has a 400-plus year history on the coast, and already know where it’s unsafe to build because of sea level rise and flooding.
As Queen Quet put it,
“I pray that today, we do RISE just like the sea levels are doing. But together, in one unified voice, that truly says that we are doing actions today, for a better tomorrow.
So that at some point, we can have the FINAL National Adaptation Forum. And then we can pour libations … in celebration that we’ve achieved what we need to.”
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NRDC experts are headed to National Adaptation Forum this week, one of the most important gatherings of climate adaptation professionals in the United States.