Mark Dixon / CC2.0

Climate Change: A Public Health Priority

May 23, 2017

On April 29, over 150,000 people took to the D.C. streets for the People's Climate March, championing climate action on President Trump's 100th day in office. Thousands more joined the sister march in Philadelphia. Alongside a diverse range of interest groups, a large contingent from the health community marched for environmental protection. The reason is clear: climate change is an imminent threat to public health.

Last spring, the White House released The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment. The report, developed over three years by over 100 climate change and public health experts, explains how climate change will exacerbate existing health threats and create new public health challenges.

A silent killer, climate change is known to increase cases of heat-associated conditions – such as dehydration, heat stroke, and skin cancer. Although these conditions pose a clear risk to humankind (one model suggests global warming will cause as many as 11,000 additional deaths in the U.S. during the summer in 2030), rising temperatures also have broader impacts on population health.

Climate change is projected to significantly increase the incidence of natural disasters that threaten human health and safety. Changes in temperatures and precipitation patterns are expected to cause droughts, extreme rainfall and flooding, and more intense and frequent hurricanes and typhoons. Since 1950, Philadelphia has seen a 360% increase in heavy downpours, the third highest increase for a U.S. city.

Additionally, rising temperatures worsen air quality, creating an environment particularly harmful for asthma and allergy sufferers. Sunlight, warm air, and pollution will combine to produce hazardous ground-level ozone (smog). Higher temperatures and concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also stimulate certain plants to produce more potent allergens. In the U.S., asthma and allergies are a major health issue, especially among children; an estimated 6.8 million children are affected. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America has identified Philadelphia as an “asthma capital,” partly because of the city’s high rate of ER visits due to asthma-associated symptoms.

Like many challenges in Philadelphia, the effects of climate change will disproportionately affect vulnerable populations. Those who already live in areas with poor air quality – commonly marginalized populations – will face a more severe environmental burden. Groups particularly susceptible to harm include low-income people, some communities of color, immigrant groups, Indigenous peoples, children, pregnant women, the elderly, people with disabilities, and people with preexisting or chronic medical conditions. According to Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability, 53,138 Philadelphians identified as vulnerable by the City lived in hotter-than-average neighborhoods in 2014.

Global warming’s wide-ranging consequences make it a critical public health issue. Yet, to many, climate change — often explained in scientific and statistical terms — can feel impersonal and irrelevant to daily life. In reality, climate change hits close to home, and so does part of the solution. Fighting the world’s greatest public health threat begins with individual decision-making and local coordination.

As a report published in the Lancet suggests, it’s not too late to reduce the potential harms of global warming. In Philadelphia, the Office of Sustainability is planning for climate change with support from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health (PDPH). Among its many initiatives, the Office of Sustainability has released its first climate adaptation report and is working on a new Energy Master Plan to cut Philadelphia’s carbon output by 80% by 2050. Meanwhile, PDPH is one of twelve local health departments participating in a national Climate and Health Learning Collaborative for urban health departments. The Department is working with over 40 diverse stakeholders to review climate change projections, estimate the disease burden, and identify health impacts — especially for vulnerable communities. These are just a few of the City’s ongoing efforts to address climate change.

Regardless of whether the Trump administration makes climate action a priority, local sustainability and health departments, together with responsible citizens, will act to mitigate atmospheric warming and adapt to present health threats.

Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu