The Obama administration recognized 11 community health leaders from around the United States July 9 for their work to raise awareness of climate change and the ill effects it can have on public health. The recognition event also served to spotlight the warming climate as one of the greatest health threats of the 21st century.
Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh deals each day with a range of health problems, including HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases, vaccines and bioethics, but climate change, he said, has a place all its own: "There is no challenge that is greater, more broad-based, more all-encompassing, more important for leaving a legacy than this issue of climate change."
The Obama administration has outlined a multistep plan to set the nation on a course to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, slow climate change and adapt to changes already occurring in a warmer world. That plan, Koh said, is an investment in a better future.
"We believe in building a healthier planet for our children and for our children's children," said Koh, who also serves as the senior public health adviser to the secretary of health and human services. Koh saluted the "Champions of Change" who have shown courage, he said, by stepping into the difficult public policy debate over climate change.
Laura Anderko, a nurse and an educator in environmental health, was named a champion. She said climate change is an "enormous" 21st-century public health threat. "Climate regulates life on Earth, and how do we help curb some of this change that is going on through mitigation efforts, but also how do we adapt to it," she said.
Anderko works to raise public awareness of the health risks inherent in climate change, especially to vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly.
The potential public health risks that can be linked to climate change are worrisome. Greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to higher levels of atmospheric ozone, which can cause respiratory problems for greater numbers of people. Record-breaking summer temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere cause soaring numbers of deaths from heat stroke and exhaustion.
Milder winters can promote greater proliferation of disease-carrying insects such as ticks and mosquitoes. More frequent storms and violent weather events are expected to cause greater numbers of injuries and deaths and increased emotional distress.
Supersized tropical storm Sandy struck the east coast of the United States in 2012 with a sea surge and flooding beyond what was predicted, an event that is likened to the types of storms climate change might bring. Another climate champion, Dr. William Rom, was caught up in Sandy as a practicing physician in New York City, where many hospitals were closed as a result of flood damage. He calls that storm "the sentinel event of climate change," which taught the region that adaptation to climate change may be brutal. Hospitals spent months, he said, restructuring their operations so that mission-critical equipment was moved to higher levels where flooding would be unlikely in the future.
Koh said the Obama Climate Change Action Plan aims to learn from that 2012 experience to build "the most sustainable and resilient health care facilities possible." He said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has developed a plan to help local health agencies analyze how weather and health might be affected by climate change projections and is now working to deploy that strategy nationwide.
Koh said U.S. health officials are also working with their global counterparts to develop adaptation strategies for coming health threats. A key element of the Obama action plan is that the United States will lead international efforts to prepare for the consequences of climate change that are already putting other nations and their citizens at risk.
In his announcement of the plan in June, Obama said the United States must help other nations adopt cleaner energy technologies and reduce carbon emissions at the same time those actions are taken domestically.