The American Public Health Association (APHA) declared 2017 the Year of Climate Change and Health. And, fittingly, September was designated Extreme Weather Month.
As Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina are beginning the long recovery from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, 140 wildfires are consuming two million acres of land in California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. In addition to more than 120 deaths and hundreds of injuries caused by these back-to-back record-breaking hurricanes (the long-term health impacts of which are still to come), wildfire smoke is raining ash on Seattle, causing air quality to plummet and triggering “health warnings of emergency conditions.” The smoke is also riding the jet stream as far east as New York.
And the scientific consensus is that climate change is making them worse. The warming planet has made extreme droughts (which increase wildfire severity) and extreme downpours (with subsequent flooding) more likely, because warmer air can hold more moisture for longer periods of time. This leads to rain being withheld in some regions and dropping torrential amounts in others. In addition to the death, injury, and mental health impacts caused by extreme weather, the APHA notes that climate change also affects community health in a variety of other ways.
But the prospect of “addressing climate change” can seem overwhelming. Suggestions abound about what individuals can do, from low-impact actions like swapping light bulbs to higher-impact decisions like having one less child.
But, as with public health or any systemic issue, the greatest impact happens by changing policies, systems, and built environments, not individual behaviors. We are not going to improve community health or mitigate climate change by hoping that 7.4 billion people overhaul their lives.
We already know how to create healthier and more environmentally sustainable communities. Many of the strategies that Healthy Places by Design helps community leaders implement are also strategies that mitigate the causes of climate change—and increase resilience to adapt to it. When communities make decisions about where to invest limited time, money, and energy, identifying strategies that address more than one problem is a great place to start.
Consider each of the approaches below and how they could, long-term, improve community health and address climate change.
Active and Public Transportation
According to a 2015 inventory of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, transportation accounted for 27 percent from 1990-2015. We know that active and public transportation options like sidewalks, bike lanes, greenways, light rail, and trains can increase opportunities to be active in communities. In addition to improved health outcomes from increased physical activity, these built environment changes can also shift a region’s transportation system toward one with lower emissions, improved air quality, and less contribution to climate change.
Parks can improve community health by increasing access to opportunities to be physically active; provide venues for farmers’ markets and community gardens, which can increase a community’s access to healthier foods; and can even improve mental well-being, among other benefits.
Park spaces also help mitigate climate change and its impacts in a number of ways. Parks provide space for greenways and bike lanes, which can reduce car trips and air pollution from vehicle emissions. Tree canopies in parks absorb carbon dioxide, a primary greenhouse gas, in addition to making air healthier to breathe by removing pollutants. They also reduce the heat-island effect, with well-shaded streets 6–10 degrees cooler than neighborhoods without street trees. The synergistic benefits of trees can even save cities millions of dollars, freeing funds to invest in communities.
Finally, parks can also mitigate the effects of some natural disasters. For example, natural spaces reduce flooding impacts by increasing the permeability of land and absorbing and cleaning stormwater runoff.
Change starts with community members. By collaborating with residents who share a common geography, special interest, or similar situation, health strategies are grounded in people’s lived experiences and provide opportunities to take positive, meaningful action. The engagement process also builds social cohesion, which is vital when communities face the extreme effects of climate change. The most inspiring stories to come out of Texas and Florida have been the every-day heroes who rescued their neighbors.
That kind of community connection starts locally. We live in a nation divided by politics and threatened by an increasingly unpredictable natural environment. But when it comes to improving the health and resilience of our communities, people have the power to make changes that solve these problems. And the time to do it is now.