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Health Leaders Turn Up the Heat on Climate Literacy

By Ryan J. Smith
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The hills of Kern County were ablaze last week as wildfires swept across California's breadbasket, the Southern San Joaquin Valley. Brought on by severe heat waves and high winds, the glowing hills could be seen spewing harmful ash for miles. Coupled with temperatures exceeding 110 degrees, Southern California and the Central Valley had become a furnace.

Hot weather is nothing new to this bustling farm community, I should know, I was born there. Alas, climate change has reduced the once water saturated ecosystem to a drought-stricken desert. Climate impacts have become so dangerous to the health of citizens living in this area that drastic infrastructure changes have been implemented to accommodate exacerbated heatwaves and some of the worst air quality in the nation. From makeshift cooling centers to one of America's most comprehensive cardiovascular treatment centers, climate impacts are costing the Golden State a great deal of money and health.

From asthma to anxiety, heatwaves are having a major impact on the way Americans live, and not just in California. As Climate Communication: Science and Outreach reported, a three-decade spike in climate-related heat waves around the globe is "responsible for more deaths annually than hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined." Additionally, the growth of eco-anxiety and related psychological impacts have caught the attention of many health professionals throughout the U.S.

ecoAmerica co-hosted an APHA webinar last month examining these mental health risks, available here for download.

...we need more climate in health and more health in climate.

With so many climate-related health issues, are medical professionals adequately trained to not only treat them but to understand their origin and predict impacts? This question was raised last month at the International Research Institute for Climate & Society's  2016 Health and Climate Colloquium. Taking aim at the long-term effects and solutions, leaders shared ideas to foster a generation of climate-literate health professionals who are as "comfortable with climate data as they are with epidemiologic data," shared Keith Hansen of the World Bank. "We have to build bridges between our meteorological experts and health, agriculture, and disaster planners. In short, we need more climate in health and more health in climate.”

The value of having climate-literate health professionals is twofold. One, it helps identify systemic issues in environmental health, but it also helps organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) "work on developing extreme heat preparedness plans." Dr. Kim Knowlton explained how the NRDC’s collaboration with cities like Ahmedabad, India, where people literally "died in the streets" after a 2010 heatwave, is addressing preparedness and resilience. With information learned through these collaborations, health professionals in the U.S. are expanding their role to accommodate climate-related health epidemics.

In Ahmedabad alone, climate literacy and database projects for health professionals have reduced heat-related deaths from 1,300 people in 2010 to 15 heat-related deaths in 2015. Climate literate health professionals are better equipped to identify and treat climate-related illnesses and to prepare for disasters before they strike.

Health professionals across the U.S. have been examining heatwaves for decades, but even within those studies, new climate occurrences such as hotter nights are changing the game. As Kert Davies, a science policy director for Ozone Action, shared, “One of the things that really impacts people’s health during heat waves is that they don’t get a break from the heat.They sleep in it, and they wake up and face it again.”

Medical professionals are facing more than just unusually hot nights, according to Larry Kalkstein, an independent researcher with the University of Delaware who has discovered rampant misidentification of health risks. Kalkstein explained that medical examiners often label climate-related heart attacks simply as a heart attack. In turn, those deaths are miscategorized and not accounted for in national climate data. Kalkstein cites the example of the 1999 U.S. heat wave in which 497 heat-related deaths were reported when the actual number was much closer to 3,000

Leadership within organizations like International Research Institute for Climate & Society are finding remedies to many of these issues. Raising awareness and creating a more comprehensive climate database will assist health professionals in mitigating the impacts of climate change and better prepare them for disasters.


Ryan Smith is a writer at Climate For Health’s sister organization, Blessed Tomorrow. He received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside. Click here to email Ryan.