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Let's Lead on Climate, featuring Chris Uejio of Florida’s BRACE (Building Resilience Against Climate Effects) program

By Tim Kelly
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Following on the success of our Let's Talk series of guides, ecoAmerica has released Let's Lead on Climate, a new guide featuring success stories from local health, faith, and community leaders who are promoting climate leadership and action. Each case study offers an inside look at why these individuals and organizations decided to lead on climate, how they developed their programs and initiatives, and what it took to overcome challenges along the way.  This week's Climate for Health blog features an excerpt from Let's Lead focusing on the second of our health leaders, Chris Uejio of Florida’s BRACE (Building Resilience Against Climate Effects) program, which is working with local communities across Florida to build resilience to climate and health impacts.

Building Resilience: Florida BRACE, featuring Chris Uejio

BRACE for climate impacts and action

Climate impacts are no strangers to Florida. Chris Uejio, project lead of Florida’s BRACE (Building Resilience Against Climate Effects) program, explains, “Communities across Florida are dealing with hurricanes, drought, wildland fires, coastal flooding, and the Zika virus. We saw a need and an opportunity to translate our findings (forecasting impacts and assessing vulnerabilities regarding the state of the climate) to county health departments who are on the front lines of these threats. We also wanted to build public health capacity to address this very urgent topic of climate and health.”

With grants and support from the Florida Department of Health, Florida BRACE was able to engage county health departments. The program seeks to help public health officials respond to the health effects of climate variability and change by incorporating the best available science in true routine practice with goals set to guide them. Counties propose topics ranging from reducing the urban heat island effect to emergency management and preparedness, and receive small grants from BRACE to build out plans and strategies.

Not all communities fit the same planning and strategy mold

The BRACE program realizes that not every plan can fit every county or impact a community may experience. Uejio explains that, while some of their strategies are generalizable, they must be tailored to each community, depending on its concerns, stressors, capacities to adapt, and political climates. “On a scientific and a community engagement level you have to be flexible and willing to work with a variety of communities,” Uejio comments.

Uejio says many county health departments have “the overarching challenge that they are generally underresourced.” He continues, “County health departments are very resourceful, however.” But, depending on the size of these departments, there can be even fewer resources and staff available to make climate change a priority. “Even though it touches so many health outcomes on their radars, engaging on climate change can be a little bit more difficult–they may just not have the capacity to do it.” 

“Communicating that message is a challenge. There are risks present to everyone, yet we have to pay special attention to certain higher-risk populations.”

The BRACE program is designed to address equity, too. Uejio highlights how impacts disproportionately impact many communities like children, older adults, those with preexisting health conditions, the poor, homeless, and people living in high-risk areas. Uejio stresses, “Communicating that message is a challenge. There are risks present to everyone, yet we have to pay special attention to certain higher-risk populations.”

Piloting for learning and leverage

While at first it was a struggle to plan for the variety of impacts and health issues that would arise in counties across the state, Uejio says they quickly learned how to solve this since they are at the front lines of dealing with these events. He remarks,“We asked them to suggest pilot projects that we would work on collaboratively. Together, we build the evidence base to improve public health.”

Uejio points to the example of Sarasota County’s multi-pronged strategy, which BRACE helped support. Rather than targeting specific hazards such as hurricanes or drought, the strategy took an “all-hazards approach.” Never knowing what might hit their county, they decided to identify and focus on the commonalities of how they could prepare and respond to a variety of hazards that may occur in the future and included other sectors, such as transportation, communication, and electricity generation.

Recommendations

• Be proactive, not reactive. BRACE had to respond quickly to the Zika outbreak. This led to more short and long-term resilience and emergency response planning.

• Strategies to make society more resilient to extreme events are win-win. They are worthwhile investments that bring jobs to local communities and help heal the community after a disaster.

• Share your successes and learnings with other health departments.

• In communications, make climate impacts and solutions personally relevant.

Key Metrics

• Program based at Florida State University and has been running for 5 years

• Provided a total of $66,000 in grants to counties to work on their climate adaptation and mitigation plans and action

• Secured $1.07 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to work with the county health departments across Florida to prepare for climate change

• Has worked with 5 counties, representing a combined total of over 1.5 million Floridians within the state, and is actively seeking to work with more