Climate change and public health: a threat or opportunity?

12th May 2016 / United Kingdom

By – This weekend’s warm weather came with an air pollution warning from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Those with asthma, older people, young children and heart patients were warned that they may experience difficulty breathing.

Climate change is likely to make this problem worse, and it is is projected that as average temperatures rise, so will the concentration of air pollution. If we allow climate change to continue, this weekend’s pollution warning could become a more consistent issue.

Air pollution is just one of the many factors that has led experts to describe climate change as the greatest danger to public health that we face this century.

So what are health communities doing to mitigate and adapt to climate change at the local level? NEF’s new report, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation today, explores this question, as well as the barriers and opportunities for action and suggestions for progress.

The links between climate change and public health

Climate change has been described as both the greatest threat and opportunity for public health that we face this century.

Potential threats to public health from a changing climate include death and injury from extreme weather, including heat and flooding; increased effects from air pollution; the spread of disease; food insecurity; population displacement; and mental ill health.

The good news is that many of the measures that could be taken in order to mitigate and adapt to climate change also have benefits for health and wellbeing.

Well-insulated and ventilated homes, active travel (i.e. walking/cycling), flood and heat resilient green space, strong social cohesion, a sustainable health and social care system and a sustainable food system can all have both health and environmental benefits.

The shift of public health into local government presents an opportunity to tackle climate change

The recent shift of public health from primary care trusts to local authorities in England provides scope for more collaborative action to mitigate and adapt to the problems that climate change presents locally.

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This is an opportunity for different professions to come together to address climate change as both a determinant of ill health, and a means to improve quality of life within local communities.

In addition, each unitary and upper-tier local authority now has a health and wellbeing board which provides a mechanism for setting priorities, across the health and social care sector, to tackle climate change collaboratively in the local area.

While there are many barriers…

NEF’s research revealed that the full potential of the recent structural changes to the public health system is not being fully utilised to tackle climate change. Heavy cuts to local authority budgets have led to a narrower and narrower list of priorities. As action on climate change is largely non-statutory and its effects are generally longer term, climate change is seldom regarded as a strategic priority.

…some Local Authorities are taking action

There are, however, some examples of action being taken across the country.

Islington Council, for example, has a dedicated Seasonal Health and Affordable Warmth (SHAW) team within the environment department which works closely with the public health team –  sharing capacity, time and some funding. Most of SHAW’s work is dedicated to taking fuel poverty and the effects of summer heat.

The public health team at Middlesbrough Council, meanwhile, funds and works in collaboration with Middlesbrough Environment City, a voluntary organisation, to deliver projects contributing to healthy, sustainable communities. Funded by public health, MEC have delivered a range of fuel poverty, food growing and active travel schemes.

Moving forward

Our research found that in order to progress, local areas should ensure that:

  • All of the local climate risks are outlined in Joint Strategic Needs Assessments;
  • Joint Health Wellbeing Strategies subsequently set out action-orientated strategies for mitigating and adapting to the assessed risk; and
  • Health and wellbeing board members recognise the importance of tackling climate change and provide the necessary leadership to turn strategy into action across the locality.

Much can be done at a national level to progress climate action at the local level. The Development of Health should work with Public Health England, the Sustainable Development Unity and other relevant parties to:

  • Increase focus and funding on early action and prevention;
  • Improve knowledge and capacity building for health and wellbeing boards;
  • Update the Public Health Outcomes Framework to include explicit climate mitigation and adaptation outcomes and indicators;
  • Develop an online resource of case studies to identify, collate and share example of good practice; and
  • Develop guidance on evaluation and available funding streams.

Despite the many barriers, there are examples of good practice. We need to learn from these and embed climate change into the core of public health. To ignore climate change would be to ignore the greatest threat to health that we face this century, and to ignore the greatest opportunity for health improvement.

You can read the full report here. 


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