Climate Change is a Public Health Crisis, Here’s What’s Being Done

National Public Health Week Climate Change University of Vermont

Climate change is the greatest threat to public health today, according to the American Public Health Association (APHA), World Health Organization (WHO), and other leading health organizations. 

The most significant climate change impacts are rising temperatures, more extreme weather, rising sea levels, and increasing carbon dioxide levels.

“When you look at data in terms of weather, heat has the most deaths associated with it. It’s jarring to see the effect on everything from asthma to COPD to cardiovascular disease,” Patrick Payne, City of Burlington Board of Health member and UVM Master of Public Health candidate, said. “That extra heat puts a substantial tax on the body systems.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention graphic above shows the effects of climate change disruptions on human health, including increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease, injuries and premature deaths related to extreme weather events, changes in the prevalence and geographical distribution of food- and water-borne illnesses and other infectious diseases, as well as threats to mental health.

Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress, according to the World Health Organization.

National Public Health Week Shines Light on Climate Crisis

APHA leads the effort to inspire action on climate and health in the U.S. to reduce adverse outcomes. 

As part of their work, APHA’s Center for Climate, Health, and Equity set goals in its 2016 Climate Change and Health Strategic Plan. Their vision for the U.S. is to “address climate in ways that improve public health and health equity, creating the healthiest nation in one generation.” 

The strategic plan includes raising awareness about critical public health issues. National Public Health Week is one way APHA does just that. Each day of the week, APHA focuses on creating a public dialogue around critical issues, including racism, the public health workforce, community collaboration and resilience, world health, accessibility and the health equity gap, climate change, and mental wellness.  

“The field is so broad that so many people don’t realize how they impact public health… people working in housing, for example, are cornerstones,” Payne said. 

In addition, National Public Health Week is a way for APHA to talk about its goals. One of APHA’s goals related to climate change is for 20 of the 30 largest U.S. cities to adopt best practices and policies prioritized by APHA through the Climate-Healthy Cities Program by 2025.

Local Municipalities Take Action to Mitigate Climate Change Health Risks

In Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, the effort to mitigate the health impacts of climate change is being led by the Burlington Board of Health

Patrick Payne

“Some areas have higher risks than others; one of those is urban areas,” Payne said. “The lack of natural heat dissipation from natural spaces allows heat to build up even more.” 

Payne and fellow board member Jennifer Tomczak joined the board together in 2021. Though they come from different backgrounds, Payne as an astrophysicist and Tomczak as a senior lab research technician at UVM’s Robert Larner School of Medicine, both developed a deep appreciation for public health through UVM’s MPH program.

“To be able to complete the MPH program work at night at home was fantastic and it was really rewarding because public health touches on every aspect of life whether its bike lanes, or the opioid epidemic, or climate change,” Tomczak said. 

Jennifer Tomczak

Payne and Tomczak both heard about the board openings through a fellow student in UVM’s MPH program who was vacating the board and advertised the opening on the MPH email list.

“It seemed like a good way to begin using my public health degree,” Tomczak said, “We’ve got some big problems. Existential problems like climate change and nuclear threats…everyone needs to pitch in at every level to keep us from going off the cliff.”

The mission of the Board of Health is to educate the citizens of Burlington and promote, improve, and protect their health and well-being while contributing toward building a healthy community and environment in which to live.

One way the board protects people from climate change is through their recommendations to the City of Burlington regarding cooling centers.

“The idea of a cooling center is evolving. In the past, it was shaded areas with cold water…now we’re thinking about what municipal centers are available with AC to help people escape the heat in another way, especially for people who don’t have access to AC or are unhoused,” Payne said. “One space that we looked at was libraries. They end up being these bastions of health and protection in many ways. We also want to have areas distributed throughout the city in a meaningful way, and think about where people are and where they would want to go.”

Climate Change Disproportionately Affects Vulnerable Communities

Another topic of discussion and priority for APHA and local boards like the one in Burlington is racism. BIPOC communities tend to be disproportionately affected by public health issues, as demonstrated by the impacts of catastrophic weather events caused by climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One element that comes up and is a product of the work we’re doing with Burlington’s Racial Equity Inclusion and Belonging Committee (REIB), is trying to bake equity and justice into any policy recommendations or observations we have,” Payne said. “In putting together any policies focused on heat-related emergencies and the facilities that people can go to so they aren’t experiencing heat stress…we are thinking about how racial equity can be considered from the get-go.”

The all-white Burlington Board of Health is also looking at how they can bring more diverse members to the table. 

“With the most recent opening on the board, we had someone from REIB come speak to us and we were like what can we do? And she said, well look at the makeup of your board. So, we made an attempt to advertise the position to a more diverse community to join the board,” Tomczak said. “It didn’t work out for the immediate opening, so we’re getting the word out now for the next opening in June too.”

The volunteer board primarily relies on Front Porch Forum, a neighborhood communication platform popular in Vermont, to post every month about important public health topics from climate change and how to dispose of syringes to board member openings. They’re looking at other ways to get the information out.

“Making sure community members can come in and act as stakeholders and have their concerns heard. If the community members can’t attend, but we’re making a decision about part of the city that is mostly a minority group, we need to be mindful of that,” Payne said. “We’re asking ourselves, have we been objective, and are we looking at our actions and trying to break them down in the context of systemic racism?”

Learn more about Public Health Week and the UVM Master of Public Health Program.

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