A United Nations report this week warned that a warming planet will exacerbate existing health problems in the coming decades — and U.S. scientists will caution later this month that those and other public health concerns are imminent.
The third National Climate Assessment, a statutorily mandated report overseen by a cross-section of federal agencies, will provide an update on the status of global warming effects already observed in the United States and expected future trends.
Scientists have warned for years that more heat waves and extreme weather events could degrade human health, and the study will also focus on the indirect impacts that climate change will have on public health systems. The effects on public health provide the rationale for the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.
“The magnitude of these threats will be new and provide new challenges that we have to prepare for,” said Dr. George Luber, a lead author on the study and associate director for climate change at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
President Barack Obama’s climate action plan includes support for the Health and Human Services Department to help train local public-health professionals in handling the health impacts of warming and to promote resilience within communities. Centers for Disease Control pilot projects already under way in 16 states and two cities aim to help those governments apply climate science to predict and anticipate health impacts locally.
Congress funded the CDC’s climate and health program at $6 million for fiscal 2014, a slight increase over the $5.8 million provided in fiscal 2013. Nearly all of the money appropriated for the program is funneled to state and city health departments through grants, Luber said.
But funding for the National Center for Environmental Health that houses the program has fluctuated as Congress has tightened its purse strings. Some groups that work in tandem with federal authorities to help local health departments plan for climate impacts have suffered declines in CDC support.
“When we get support from the CDC, we put it to good use,” said David Dyjack, associate executive director of programs at the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
Exposure to air quality changes will be felt cumulatively by people with pre-existing conditions and by children and the elderly, Luber said. Those who are predisposed to pollen allergies are similarly affected by poor air quality from wildfires and high ozone concentrations — problems that will likely be heightened in Western states this year due to drought conditions.
The magnitude of extreme events will also stress the nation’s infrastructure in ways that pose different challenges, Luber said. When storms exceed historical norms, critical support systems built to withstand the weather of the 20th century often fail, he said, pointing to the 2012 derecho storm that knocked out portions of the Washington metro area’s emergency response network in 2012.
“Our job really is to find ways to bring all of this information into the context where action can then be made,” Luber said.
The CDC has developed a climate resilience framework for public health agencies to incorporate climate data and modeling into their everyday planning and response activities. The centers offer grant funding to those departments so they can develop community-specific public health adaptation strategies — money that local departments are rely on to finance climate change programs, Dyjack said.
“Public health is profoundly local,” he said. “The challenges are local, and the solutions are local.”
New York, one of the cities funded under the CDC’s Climate-Ready States and Cities Initiative, used grant money to create a climate and weather-event monitoring system using real-time hospitalization data. That allows the city to study whether current weather conditions are causing severe health problems, CDC spokeswoman Bernadette Burden said.
Funding for the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health dropped more than 20 percent by fiscal 2013 from a peak of $181 million in fiscal 2010. While climate and health program funding has stayed relatively stable, conservative members often target funding proposed for both health care and climate-related activities for cuts, and fiscal 2015 will not likely be an exception.
The National Association of County and City Health Officials’ climate change funding from the CDC dropped more than 77 percent from 2012 to 2013, to $30,000 from $133,000, said Dyjack, whose group provides technical assistance and resources for the 2,800 local public health departments operating nationwide.
While the nature of federal grant funding is inconsistent and every dollar helps, he said, the extent of the decrease is confusing given the Obama administration’s heightened focus on climate change.
“It’s that incongruence that we find puzzling,” Dyjack said.
The CDC awards grants to partner organizations, including groups representing local health officials, from the same pot of money, though those agreements are structured differently, Luber said. Climate and health funding has stayed flat or dropped slightly, he said — an impact of the sequestration cuts and increases in business service costs on the federal side.
Some lawmakers have directly appealed to appropriators to prioritize funding for the centers’ climate and health program.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat who has been vocal about taking action to mitigate climate change and prepare for its impacts, urged Senate appropriators last year to match the Obama administration’s $8.2 million request for the effort.
“Preventive policies are a cost-effective way to make communities more resilient to climate change,” he and other lawmakers wrote. “Providing adequate funding for low-cost planning programs such as the CDC Climate and Health Program will enable our communities to avoid greater public health costs in the future.”
That program is the only federal investment in the research and application of climate science and health, Luber said.
“We are the only shop in town,” he said.
A previous version of this story misstated which group's climate change funding dropped in 2013.