Emphasizing The Health Effects from Our Changing Climate
By Judy Monroe, MD
In today’s news cycle you see a multitude of health threats—COVID-19, cardiovascular disease, monkeypox, opioids and more. However, there is one health threat facing each of us: the impact to health from our changing climate. At last week’s Aspen Ideas: Health Festival, the CDC Foundation was pleased to sponsor an enlightening panel session exploring these challenges.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, led off the session stating “I think we need to acknowledge that climate and health is going to be one of the great challenges that we have to face in the 21st century. I don’t really believe that everybody recognizes this intersectionality so it’s important to have these conversations.”
Walensky was joined in the panel moderated by Elizabeth Cohen, CNN senior medical correspondent, by Leah Thomas, author and founder of the Intersectional Environmentalist, and Marlene Wolfe, PhD, of Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health.
Climate-related health threats include extreme weather, worsening air quality, rising temperatures, changes in the spread of infectious diseases, threats to food and water quality and quantity, and effects on our mental health.
Building on this theme, Walensky said, “There’s air pollution that will lead to cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease. There are issues like heat stroke, and that leads to 700 deaths a year and many hospitalizations.” But she noted other issues “related to drought, flood, fire, water borne outbreaks related to flooding, maybe flooding of wells. And tick-borne diseases—vector borne diseases have tripled in frequency and come earlier in seasons and broader across the United States.”
Like so many health challenges, those communities most at risk to the health effects of a changing climate are those with the weakest infrastructures to prepare and respond to the threat.
“It’s really important to consider who is being impacted the most by both climate injustice and health injustice and that intersection of environmental justice. Time and time again, it’s lower income and communities of color and also women,” said Thomas. “We can’t just say health and environmentalism are connected without acknowledging that Black, Indigenous, people of color, women and low-income populations bear the brunt of environmental injustice.”
A popular narrative is that we have 50 or more years before we experience the most serious health impact from climate change, but Wolfe said this belief is not backed up by the science.
“We’re here,” she said. “We have more and more outbreaks we are going to need to combat in the future and that we’re dealing with right now. For us to be able to come up with new, nimble, inclusive systems to track disease outbreaks, understand how infectious disease is impacting people around the world and how it does so inequitably, is extremely important.”
To this point, Wolfe described forward-thinking work she is undertaking:
“One of the things that we’ve done in my group over the past couple of years is focus on using wastewater to track infectious diseases so we can take less than a gram of solids from wastewater… and we can tell what is the burden of disease in a community,” Wolfe said. “That started with COVID because of the demand from the pandemic but now we’re expanding that into these threats that are coming.”
In a development following the Aspen session, Wolfe’s team announced last week the detection of monkeypox for the first time in a wastewater sample in San Francisco.
Importantly, Walenksy noted that there’s much we can do to confront the climate and health challenge by preparing communities. She highlighted CDC’s work in this regard.
“We put together the Building Resilience Against Climate Effects, or BRACE framework,” she indicated. “BRACE is a five-point framework, and we deliver it to communities to say where are you in this framework about your vulnerabilities to climate effects and where do you need to bolster along this framework so we can be better prepared for a climate challenge that is headed in your direction.”
Like so much in public health, CDC does not have the funding and resources to take BRACE to all communities. So, to help bolster CDC’s response, the CDC Foundation is advancing work to bring together partners to build capacity for communities, develop a national climate health workforce, build climate change leadership in public health, communicate the health impacts of a changing climate and transform the healthcare system for climate health.
While the challenges are daunting, all of the panelists saw reasons to be hopeful, including the energy that youth bring to the climate challenge. I’m also encouraged and agree that youth will play a critical role in helping drive change and making progress. I’ll have more share on the role of youth in the coming months.
I encourage you to take a moment to learn more about the CDC Foundation’s focus on climate and health and see a full recording from the panel session at the Aspen Ideas: Health Festival. The most recent episode of our podcast, Contagious Conversations, also introduces even more fascinating conversations we had with public health leaders—including CDC’s Dr. Patrick Breysse, Emory University’s Dr. Marlene Wolfe and Google’s Dr. Karen DeSalvo—on topics ranging from climate change to wastewater surveillance to restoring trust in public health. You can listen now on our website or wherever you get your podcasts, or visit YouTube to watch video from our interview with Dr. Breysse.
Judy Monroe, MD, is president and CEO of the CDC Foundation.