At a news conference held earlier today, APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, MD, FACP, put his proverbial “foot” down, telling reporters that “today, we are taking our seat at the table.” In other words, climate change is already having and is expected to have serious effects on people’s health and so public health must make its voice known — it’s public health workers that have the experience, technique and knowledge to prepare people for an environmentally uncertain future.
Jonathan Patz, MD, MPH, who spoke at the news event and has been a lead author of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports (the IPCC shared the Nobel prize with Al Gore this year), noted that climate change is more than political — it’s a moral issue too. It’s disadvantaged, vulnerable populations in the developed and developing world — the people who bear the least responsibility for emitting greenhouse gases into the air — who will bear the brunt of climate change’s health effects: heat waves, floods, more severe weather events and rises in vector-borne diseases, such as malaria.
Patz noted that it wasn’t until the risks of secondhand cigarette smoke became well known that smoking bans really gained momentum. And like secondhand smoke, our highly consumptive lifestyles and greenhouse gas emissions are having a negative health effect on those who bear little — if no — responsibility for the current crisis.
Thankfully, some local public health agencies are already building their seat at the climate change table. In Multnomah County, Ore., health department Director Lillian Shirley, MPH, MPA, said workers are already talking about what climate change-affected diseases should be on their radar, how they should prepare for more severe floodwater and snowmelts and whether their region will be susceptible to rises in vector-borne diseases.
At the news conference, Shirley said Multnomah health workers are putting public health preparedness methodology to work to get ready for climate change as well as talking about the positive incentives needed to promote behavior change. All the little things can add up, she said, like an employer who installs on-site showers to motivate employees to walk or bike to work. Shirley called on her public health colleagues to be vigilant locally where people work, play and live.
“The canary in the coal mine is local jurisdictions,” she said.
More information on 2008’s National Public Health Week, which runs April 7–13, 2008, will be available in December online. For information now, stop by the National Public Health Week booth at the Public Health Expo, booth number 535.