The White House is getting serious about tackling the health impacts of climate change, announcing Tuesday a suite of initiatives aimed at educating Americans about how climate change affects their health and addressing the most pressing impacts of a warming world.
The announcement includes a range of new public and private sector initiatives and projects, including health-related projects from companies like Microsoft and Google, the creation of a coalition to educate health care professionals on the risks climate change poses to health, and the release of two government reports on health and climate change.
On a press call, senior adviser to President Brian Deese said that though the White House has stressed the link between climate change and health in the past, these new initiatives are meant to “step up that effort.” He also said that tying climate change to health is an effective way to educate Americans about the threat.
“I think what we are seeing in the public debate is increasing awareness and acceptance … that not only is climate change real, the impacts are things that are affecting more and more people in their daily lives,” he said. “The most salient arguments around climate change are associated with health impacts and are ones that meet people where they are, and that requires making an argument about how climate change is affecting local communities and individuals.”
The White House says it plans to hold a series of meetings this week with health care professionals and other stakeholders, including one at Howard University Tuesday, during which the president will meet with U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, health care professionals and educators, and the mother of a child with asthma. Later this spring, the White House says it plans to hold a White House Climate Change and Health Summit with the Surgeon General.
One theme in the White House’s plan to address climate’s threat to public health is data. Last year, the Obama Administration launched the Climate Data Initiative, which sought to increase Americans’ access to data on sea level rise and other climate impacts. On Tuesday, the administration announced that it would be entering 150 health-related datasets to its system. Those datasets will be used by organizations and companies to better understand and reduce the health impacts of climate change, the White House said.
The projects from private sector groups also rely on data. Microsoft’s research arm is undertaking a project that aims to reduce disease outbreaks by catching disease vectors, like mosquitoes, before they have a chance to infect people. The company is creating an automated system that will collect mosquitoes from an area by drone, and will then detect whether the mosquitoes are carrying pathogens. The system “has the potential to serve as an early warning system for vector borne disease outbreaks and may assist health officials in planning for the impacts of climate change on public health,” the White House said.
The Department of Defense also plans to start a project aimed at better understanding when and where diseases emerge: in May, the DOD will launch a pilot project that will seek to create predictions for outbreaks of diseases like dengue fever.
But it’s not just individuals who are at risk from climate change. Around the country, hospitals are threatened by extreme storms and sea level rise. To combat that, the White House announced that climate change-focused business Four Twenty Seven is planning on analyzing the vulnerability of 100 large American health care facilities, and will publish its findings online.
The company hopes the data will help decision-makers figure out how to make their health care facilities more resilient to climate change. Some hospitals are already taking major steps to help them stay operational during major storms and help them escape rising seas, but others haven’t yet taken these steps — and as power outages during Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina showed, lives are put at risk when hospitals can’t remain open during a disaster.
As Deese noted, this isn’t the first time the White House has emphasized the link between climate change and human health. Last year, the administration cited “billions of dollars in public health and climate benefits” as one of the outcomes of its Clean Power Plan, and said that the regulations on power plant emissions would help the U.S. avoid 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths and 140,000 to 150,000 child asthma attacks.
Before announcing the proposed rule, Obama noted that asthma is “aggravated by air pollution — pollution from the same sources that release carbon and contribute to climate change.”
In December of 2014, the White House released guidelines to help hospitals better prepare for climate change. And in its Champions of Change awards last year, the White House honored professionals that worked at the intersection of health and climate.
It is true that the health impacts of climate change are well-documented. One of the reports the White House released Tuesday states that a range of climate-related health impacts are already affecting the lives of Americans. It cites longer, more frequent, and more severe extreme weather events, expanding disease vectors, worsening air quality, and even worsening stress as the consequences of a changing climate.
“Every American is vulnerable to the health impacts associated with climate change,” the draft report, which is being submitted for peer review, states.