First Nationwide Climate Change Survey of Public Health Departments Not Promising

April 24, 2008
12:12 PM

 CONTACT: Environmental Defense Fund
Jennifer Dickson, Environmental Defense Fund, (202) 572-3401 or (202) 520-1221
Becky Wexler, National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), (301) 652-1558
Tara Laskowski, George Mason University, (703) 993-8815
First Nationwide Climate Change Survey of Public Health Departments
Shows Lack of Resources for Dealing with Health Challenge
WASHINGTON, DC – April 24 – Climate change is a concern to most local public health directors but few have resources to tackle the problem, according to a national survey conducted by National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and George Mason University.
The survey, included in the report Are We Ready? Preparing for the Public Health Challenges of Climate Change, is the first national one of its kind that assesses the perceptions and activities of local public health directors regarding climate change and public health.

More than half of the surveyed directors are concerned about the health effects of climate change on their jurisdictions, though only a small group has been able to make adaptation or prevention a priority.

“Local health departments recognize that climate change imperils the health of their communities. It is essential that they gain the new knowledge and sustained resources needed to help them prepare for the increased severity of health-threatening problems that we can expect, from long-term heat waves to increased populations of disease-bearing mosquitoes,” said Patrick Libbey, Executive Director of NACCHO.

The majority of health directors said they perceived a lack of knowledge about climate change both within their health department and among other key stakeholders in their communities; a lack of adaptation and mitigation planning expertise in the public health community at large; and significant financial and human resource limitations on their ability to respond to climate change. Of the directors surveyed:

* Nearly 70% believed that climate change had already occurred in their jurisdictions;

* 78% believed their jurisdictions would experience climate changes over the next 20 years;

* 60% said that their local populations would experience one or more serious public health problems over the next 20 years as a result of climate change;

* More than 50% felt that climate change was an “important priority,” but only 19% of respondents indicated that climate change was among their departments’ top 10 current priorities;

* 82% felt they lacked the expertise to craft adaptation plans; * 77% said that additional resources would improve their departments’ ability to deal with climate change as a public health issue.

“These findings show that while public health officials recognize the need to be prepared for adverse health impacts from climate change, there are serious gaps in the U.S. public health system’s ability to meet that need,” said Dr. John Balbus, Environmental Defense Fund’s Chief Health Scientist and lead author of the report. “With public health departments already stretched thin by increasing demands and decreasing federal assistance, the additional challenges posed by climate change threaten to put more people in harm’s way.”

Recommendations from the report focus on protecting preventing climate-related health dangers by ensuring the responsiveness and efficiency of the public health system; preventing climate-related disease as much as possible by reducing greenhouse gas emissions to levels required to avoid climate change’s most severe effects; and enhancing public health by aligning desirable goals like reductions in greenhouse gasses with critical public health goals.

“As Congress debates climate change solutions, we hope they too will see the importance of ensuring that communities have the resources available to deal with the health impacts,” said Balbus. “We must be ready on the local level to handle climate change implications.”

Are We Ready? Preparing for the Public Health Challenges of Climate Change is the first nationally representative survey to assess the perceptions and activities of local public health directors regarding climate change and public health. One hundred and thirty-three local health department directors from across the country answered a series of questions meant to assess their perceptions of climate change and its potential public health effects; their communities’ level of preparedness for the health impacts of climate change; their current activities to prevent or mitigate climate change; and their opinions on necessary resources to best address climate change.

“Our research identified practical steps that can be taken to help local health departments protect the public’s health from climate change,” said Ed Maibach, professor and director of George Mason University’s Center of Excellence in Climate Change Communication Research and co-author of the report. “With the necessary resources, health departments have a significantly better chance at keeping their communities healthy, both now and as climate change progresses in the near future.”

The full report is available for download at

NACCHO is the national organization representing the nation’s nearly 3,000 local health departments. These agencies work every day on the front lines to protect and promote the health of their communities. NACCHO develops resources and programs and promotes national policies that support effective local public health practice.

A leading national nonprofit organization, Environmental Defense Fund represents more than 500,000 members. Since 1967, Environmental Defense Fund has linked science, economics, law and innovative private-sector partnerships to create breakthrough solutions to the most serious environmental problems. For more information, visit

George Mason University, located in the heart of Northern Virginia’s technology corridor near Washington, D.C., is an innovative, entrepreneurial institution with national distinction in a range of academic fields. With strong undergraduate and graduate degree programs in engineering, information technology, biotechnology and health care, Mason prepares its students to succeed in the work force and meet the needs of the region and the world.

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