This post is by John Balbus, M.D., M.P.H., Chief Health Scientist at Environmental Defense.
Damage to public health from climate change is already occurring around the world, with over 160,000 extra deaths occurring annually from malaria, diarrhea, malnutrition, and flooding.
Public health professionals are taking notice, and looking for solutions.
Climate change and its effects on human health took center stage at this week's annual meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA). Three sessions were devoted to the topic, including a plenary session attended by 700-800 people. A policy resolution calling for an economy-wide cap on greenhouse gases passed easily.
After the plenary session, APHA executive director Georges Benjamin held a press conference where he announced that climate change will be the theme of next April's Public Health Week. The organization plans to release a set of recommendations for addressing the health impacts of climate change at that time.
Many presentations focused on how to stop global warming. Dr. Brian Schwartz of Johns Hopkins caught the audience's attention with an eloquent call to "reconnect the disconnect" between our intellectual understanding of the need to lower greenhouse gas emissions and our personal energy consumption choices, from house size to automobile use. Dr. Howard Frumkin of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) discussed how public health professionals can apply their skills to the health challenges of climate change. He showed a great "back to the future" slide describing the health benefits of low-carbon behaviors from the past like walking children to school.
When it identifies a clear threat to health, the public health community can mobilize significant change. Messaging and advocacy from the public health community has transformed the fast food hamburger from a staple to a symbol of our obesity epidemic, and removed soft drink marketing from our schools.
It took the finding that tobacco harmed bystanders to eliminate smoking from public spaces, and that may be the type of framing that can build momentum for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Dr. Jonathan Patz from the University of Wisconsin made this case in his presentation at the plenary session. Public health professionals might be able to drive change by likening the carbon dioxide coming from automobile tailpipes to second hand smoke emitted from cigarette tips, while at the same time demonstrating the health benefits of other modes of transportation. The challenge is making this case stick when the people harmed live on another continent or in the future – far removed from the "smoker".
One thing is certain. The public health community is starting to get it. Look for more action from this corner as April and Public Health Week draw near.