Responding now to climate change

January 21, 2020 | Ashlie Chandler
A white sign held up during a rally says, "The climate is changing. So should we. Act now!"

New DEOHS study finds health officials want to prepare for the threat of climate change but lack resources, guidance

Tribal, state and local public health officials identified a need for additional capacity and resources to prepare for how climate change will affect health. Photo: Unsplash/Markus Spiske.


Many state and local health agencies recognize the threat of climate change but need more resources and clearer, more flexible guidance to reduce its impact on public health, according to a new study from the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS).

The study—published online this month in the American Journal of Public Health—outlines a set of indicators to help health departments plan and track climate change adaptation efforts.

“The indicators are a guide to aid agencies, departments and tribes in considering what steps they need to take and what areas they need to invest [in] to become more climate-prepared,” the researchers wrote.

"We hope they can ... use it as a starting point for adaptation work,” said lead author Annie Doubleday, who conducted the research while she was a graduate student in DEOHS, part of the UW School of Public Health.

New indicators to guide adaptation

Researchers identified indicators of climate change adaptation and mapped them to guidelines and activities developed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that outline the basic responsibilities of state, tribal, territorial and local public health agencies.

That effort led to a preliminary set of indicators to discuss with tribal, state and local public health officials working on climate and health in Washington and Oregon. Results from those discussions were used to refine the indicators.

Annie Doubleday was a graduate student in DEOHS. 

Reflecting on-the-ground reality

Researchers identified a need for guidelines that can be modified to reflect a state, tribal or local agency’s unique organizational structure, climate hazards, resource limitations and public health approaches.

The discussions also highlighted:

  • The importance of integrating adaptation efforts into existing programs and data streams.
  • The need for clarity regarding the role of public health in climate change adaptation.
  • The desire to strengthen communications, partnerships and response capacity to increase resilience.

The study found that practitioners perceive a large gap between needs and available resources that “hinders a comprehensive approach to health adaptation, connection with stakeholders and coordination with other sectors.”

“Additional resources will ultimately be necessary”

The lack of clarity regarding the role of population health in climate change has led to inadequate resource and capacity allocation.

Washington and Oregon rank No. 22 and No. 30, respectively, for per capita public health spending, indicating that these practitioners’ resource concerns may reflect those of their counterparts in other public health agencies.

Researchers proposed ways that activities and resources could build and track additional capacity for climate adaptation efforts. However, “given the climate-related health impacts that communities are likely to face in the coming years, additional resources will ultimately be necessary to meet the demands placed on public health,” they wrote.

Study co-authors are DEOHS Lecturer Nicole Errett, Professor Kristie Ebi and Associate Professor Dr. Jeremy Hess.



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