Report after report, scientists warn of the catastrophic, irreversible effects of climate change. We’ve known about these very real threats for decades. But how do we get more people to care—and more importantly, take action?
“We could change the conversation more if we talked about health,” says Jaime Madrigano, an associate professor of Environmental Health and Engineering, in an episode of Public Health On Call. “Communicating the health impacts of climate change really resonates with people … across the ideological spectrum. And it resonates with policymakers too, because they know their constituents are concerned about health impacts.”
For example, climate change is causing natural disasters to happen more frequently and be more severe. When a hurricane occurs, reports often focus on lives lost, damage to property and infrastructure, and the costs of repairs. Those are important to quantify, but so are the health impacts that result from such an event. “Those damage assessments usually do not include health costs associated with them,” Madrigano says.
And those costs can be significant. Hurricane Ian, which hit Florida in September 2022, killed around 150 people and is estimated to have caused anywhere from $50 billion to over $100 billion in damage. But health impacts go beyond death, says Madrigano, noting the increased hospitalizations that occur following a disaster, whether for injury, respiratory issues due to mold, or complications from distress like heart attacks.
To really understand and address the health impacts of climate change, researchers need to change how they collect and analyze data. “We have to be thinking about those conversations right from the very beginning,” says Madrigano. “How can we collect data [and] arrange our teams in a way that's going to best be useful to people on the ground, policymakers, [or] community-based advocates?”
More academics are starting to do this, engaging practitioners to find out what data they need. Policymakers, for example, need quantitative data that enables them to shift resources around. “They need to be able to do a cost benefit analysis on a particular policy or adaptation mechanism,” Madrigano says. It’s this approach that’s contributed to the success of initiatives like Cool Neighborhoods NYC, which aims to keep people safe in extreme heat.
“Right from the start, I was working with the New York City Department of Health on that project,” Madrigano explains. From there, it was incorporated into the mayor’s plan, and the mayor’s office worked directly with community-based organizations to help them understand and disseminate the results of that work. Those organizations also helped determine the types of programs that could protect people in their communities that were most at risk for heat-related illness and death.
That informed, localized approach is essential to building and implementing meaningful solutions. Community advocates can speak to what will or won’t work in their neighborhood, and what types of changes would be embraced or resisted by residents. Madrigano brings up neighborhood greening projects, a popular solution for heat stress and climate adaptation that includes things like planting trees, improving stormwater management, and building parks.
But community organizations reported that residents were fearful and distrustful of these improvements. “Were these solutions really meant for them, the people who have been living there for decades?” Madrigano explains. “Or was it meant for the next people that were going to come in and push them out?”
In the U.S. and globally, the people and communities most susceptible to the risks posed by extreme heat and natural disasters are often the ones least equipped to prepare or adapt. “That tends to be … places that are not as wealthy, not as well-organized politically,” explains UC San Diego Professor David Victor in an Earth Day episode of Public Health On Call. There is a core injustice, he says, in that “those are the places that disproportionately also didn't cause the climate change problem.”
Ultimately, focusing on health is a win-win for people and the planet, explains Victor, because many solutions to address health issues can in turn help mitigate climate change. For example, the regulation of coal plants and automobiles can improve local air quality. Further, switching to alternative fuels and technologies reduces both local air pollution and the emissions that cause climate change.
By approaching issues more holistically—from research to implementation—we can see more such climate solutions in ways that are informed, effective, and equitable.
Aliza Rosen is a digital content strategist in the Office of External Affairs at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
- Adjusting for Reality: Rethinking Goals to Address Climate Change
- How to Be A Climate Change Advocate (Public Health On Call Series)
- Water Crises—Poor Infrastructure in Communities of Color (Public Health On Call Series)