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February 22 2019

Climate change and health are inherently local: rural or urban, climate change impacts us all

By Natalie Brown, NEHA Project Coordinator,Natasha DeJarnett PhD, NEHA Research Coordinator

Images, photos, and news coverage of climate change impacts tend to zoom in on the urban consequences- flooding in the streets after a large rain event, destruction of buildings and gas stations during a hurricane, cars buried under mountains of snow in cities where snowstorms have historically been uncommon, high school football players suffering from heat stroke during increasingly hotter summer training camp. The effects of climate change, however, impact us all, regardless of where we live. Health and climate are intrinsically connected, and health is deeply local. Because of the localized influences of a changing climate, it is imperative that environmental health departments and professionals work with their communities to understand the on-the-ground challenges exacerbated by evolving conditions.

While the impacts differ between the two, both urban and rural areas are already experiencing transitions in their economies and challenges to human health due to changes in air quality, heat, drought, storms, floods, and vector-borne illnesses. Urban areas will experience higher instances of urban heat island effects that lead to heat related illness or death. Worsening air quality due to increasing particulate matter and ground-level ozone exposure will more heavily affect cities and urban areas, leading to higher mortality and lower life expectancy. Urban areas are fortunate to have closer proximity to resources, but this density leads to intensified and often costlier damages.

Rural areas are essential to the health and vitality of the American economy. These communities rely on natural resources for their livelihoods, and supply much of the water, food, and energy for the rest of the country. Maintaining the health of these areas maintains health for the whole nation. Because rural areas are generally more physically isolated than their urban counterparts, higher investment in transportation systems, infrastructure, and health systems will help local communities prepare and respond to weather and climate events. An increase in intensity, severity, and cost to human life due to drought and wildfires has put a spotlight on the dangers of a changing climate in rural areas. As noted in a recent ecoAmerica survey, urban residents are more likely to be concerned about climate change than rural respondents, indicating a need for more community engagement and discussion surrounding climate change and a just transition in these regions.

By investing in resilient built environment and infrastructure, health and economic loses in both urban and rural communities can be diminished. Environmental health practitioners stand on the frontline for combating climate change at the local and state level, and by providing community-based solutions, rural and urban areas alike can be better equipped to face the challenges of climate change head-on. To learn more, and to become a leader in climate change mitigation in your community, join ecoAmerica and the National Environmental Health Association at this year’s Annual Education Conference, July 9-12 in Nashville. A free pre-conference ambassador training will provide environmental health professionals with skills to communicate climate change.

NEHA is a partner of Climate for Health, a coalition of health leaders committed to caring for our climate to care for our health.  Founded by ecoAmerica, Climate for Health offers tools, resources, and communications to demonstrate visible climate leadership, inspiring and empowering health leaders to speak about, act on and advocate for climate solutions. Learn more about our partnership and the resources available to you here

Sources:

Speiser, M., Kobayashi, N., Gutierrez, M., Lake, C., and Voss, J.  (2019). American Climate Perspectives Survey 2019, Vol II: Climate Attitudes Differ in Rural, Suburban, Urban Living. ecoAmerica and Lake Research Partners. Washington, DC.

National Environmental Health Association. (2017). NEHA’s policy statement of climate change. Denver, CO: Author. Retrieved from https://www.neha.org/node/58947

U.S. Global Change Research Program. (2018). Impacts, risks, and adaption in the United States: Fourth national climate assessment, volume II. Washington, DC: U.S.

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