Preparing for the Health Impacts of a Changing Climate

When it comes to earth’s rapidly changing climate, we cannot separate our own health from that of the planet we share. No matter where we may live, everyone faces health risks from climate change. Identifying those risks and preparing the most under-resourced communities to meet the accompanying challenges is key to saving lives and protecting health today and for future generations.

In addition to the direct hazards posed by extreme weather events like tornadoes, hurricanes and floods, threats from mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and dengue are also increasing as the climate warms. Droughts triggered by changing rainfall patterns will affect crop production and cause increased incidences of malnutrition, while water supplies tainted by flooding will spark large-scale outbreaks of waterborne disease. Longer pollen seasons, coupled with the smoke from increasingly frequent wildfires, threaten air quality and increase respiratory allergies and asthma. And, rising temperatures will pose increased risks of heat exhaustion and cardiovascular events.

While we all face risks, those living in communities with weak health infrastructure face the greatest challenges. Here in the United States, rural populations, communities of color and tribal communities are often under-resourced and overburdened and bear an unequal portion of health-related climate hazards.

Climate-related news can be overwhelming, and the challenges we face are real, which is why the CDC Foundation is addressing the health impacts of climate change by raising awareness about the climate connection to public health and by building strong cross-sectoral partnerships that call on the strengths of government, private business, non-governmental organizations and foundations, universities and other public health partners.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC Foundation has built a network of 300 community-based organizations with deep ties to local communities on the front lines of climate change. This network of partners can identify gaps that exist in community preparedness and help communities take action, particularly in those communities most at risk. To help gauge broader community level preparedness, the CDC Foundation partnered with The Kresge Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to access climate change capacity in 21 urban jurisdictions and local health departments. The data from this assessment will inform climate change adaptation efforts in other communities.

For these partnerships to succeed, expertise on the ground is essential. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC Foundation has hired, deployed and managed nearly 3,500 frontline staff in public health departments across the country. These professionals have bolstered the nation’s public health response during the pandemic. Increased capacity and expertise like this can play a key role for public health in addressing the health impacts of a changing climate going forward. 

As our leaders craft policies that will shape future responses to address the health effects of a changing climate, it is essential that the voice of public health be included in all discussions and decisions on environmental policies. Through sound and informed policies, and leveraged relationships with the nation’s healthcare sector, we can both better prepare for coming climate health challenges and mitigate their adverse impacts on the climate itself.

The time to act on the health effects of a changing climate is now.

At the CDC Foundation, we believe information is the first step to taking action. Today, we are launching a presence on our website dedicated to the climate health discussion, to share word of our partnerships and projects aimed at addressing climate health challenges across the country and around the world. Through strong partnerships and a determined commitment to protecting health and saving lives, we can all play a role in creating a healthier future in the face of this global challenge. Together our impact is greater.

Judy Monroe
Judy Monroe, MD, is president and CEO of the CDC Foundation.