The United Nations, Climate Change, Environmental Health, and You

by Nicole Hill, MPH and Robert Perkowitz

Published in the NEHA Journal, October 2022

The leading authority globally on cli- mate change is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) within the United Nations. Every 5 years, the panel releases an extensive 3-part as- sessment on climate change that explores the science, the impacts, and the solutions. In February 2022, IPCC released findings from Working Group II as part of its Sixth Assessment Report. The Working Group II report—3,675 pages long itself—focused on climate change impacts on ecosystems, bio- diversity, and human communities. So, what do these findings mean for environmental health and you?

The Working Group II contribution to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report chronicles how climate change impacts human sys- tems, including water scarcity and food pro- duction; health and well-being; and cities, settlements, and infrastructure. These sys- tems span both the natural and built envi-

ronment and are closely or directly related to the environmental health field. The diver- sity of environmental health professionals ranges from inspectors who monitor our air, water, and food, to city planners who imple- ment design strategies that keep us safe and mitigate the risk of harm around us. Envi- ronmental health professionals are at the core of public health, and therefore, also at the core of climate change solutions.

The IPCC (2022) report states with “very high” confidence that “climate change has negatively affected human health and well- being in North America.” We all see and feel the impacts of our changing climate but like many other environmental health chal- lenges, risks and consequences vary by pop- ulation. Factors including age, gender, loca- tion, and socioeconomic status influence how heavily the burden of climate change impacts various groups of people (IPCC, 2022). Within the U.S., communities of color

are disproportionately impacted by climate change. For example, Black and African American individuals are more likely to live in areas with the highest projected increase in deaths from extreme temperatures due to climate change (U.S. Environmental Protec- tion Agency, 2021). Additional IPCC health projections include “very high” confidence that morbidity will be impacted by mean temperatures and air pollution. Mortal- ity will be impacted by severe windstorms. Morbidity and mortality will be impacted by extreme heat (IPCC, 2022).

We see these impacts played out in our own communities. Many people in the U.S. report that they have already experienced the impacts of climate change. For example, 79% of survey respondents report having noticed more extreme heat in the past few years (Hill, 2021). And a majority of people in the U.S.— especially in the West—report noticing more severe wildfires in the past few years (Hill, 2021). From a national poll, 78% of respon- dents indicated that they have been person- ally impacted by extreme weather in the last 5 years (NPR et al., 2022). At the same time from a different survey, 96% of U.S. adult respondents agree that we have a right to live in a healthy environment with clean air and water (Hill, 2021b). What actions can we take to get there? What can environmental health professionals do?

The most important thing you can do to help slow, stop, and reverse climate change is to communicate, especially about the health risks. From a 2022 survey, 60% of respon- dents say they are curious about climate change (Hill, 2022a). We need to turn that curiosity into action. Furthermore, 61% of people in the U.S. surveyed associate heat waves with climate change and 50–60% asso- ciate severe storms, drought, wildfires, and floods with climate change (Hill, 2022b). Less understood impacts of climate change include air pollution, seasonal allergies, and disease-carrying insects. Of those surveyed, only 21% noted the association of climate change with disease-carrying insects (Hill, 2022b). As trusted professionals, talking about climate change in terms of real, tangible, and local impacts helps build support for climate action.

So, when you talk about climate change, keep these factors in mind:

  • Start with people. Consider the concernsand values—such as family, community, health, and fairness—of those you are speaking to and honor them. Then, move from people to climate.
  • Make it real. Focus on local realities every- one can see with their own eyes and bring forward your own climate journey to per- sonalize the issue.
  • Focus on solutions and personal benefit. Avoid speaking about climate solutions as a matter of sacrifice. Solutions invest today in the future we want tomorrow. Empha- size local, tangible, and effective solutions.
  • Inspire and empower. People are often told that we cannot make a difference on climate change but that is not true. Provide hope and optimism by sharing solutions and letting your audience know that we can make a difference.
  • Be thoughtful. Be considerate to your audience and ask them to get involved in action today.
    Additionally, you can bring climatechange forward in all aspects of your life. A total of 88% of surveyed people in the U.S. are either very, somewhat, or a little con- cerned about climate change, which means there is an opportunity to help initiate cli- mate conversations in your neighborhood, workplace, and community (Hill, 2022c). For environmental health professionals in community health departments, state agen- cies, or the federal government, consider the following about people in the U.S. who we surveyed in 2021:
  • 70% say it is the responsibility of local communities to address climate change,
  • 69% say it is the responsibility of theU.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address climate change, and
  • 64% say it is the responsibility of states to address climate change (Hill, 2021b). Notably, more than any other group, people in the U.S. said that it was their personal responsibility to address climate change (Hill, 2021b). Your colleagues, friends, and family want to be part of the solution. Reach out to everyone, every day. Follow these steps and contact your local elected and appointed offi- cials to get started on advocacy:

1. Know who represents you. It takes only a moment to find out who your local repre- sentatives are. Learn about their priorities to see how and why climate change ties into their interests.

2. Look for local connections and leverage points. Focus on solutions that can take place in your local community first, then engage with them and help local govern- ment make the connections.

3. Do not limit yourself. There is no one- size-fits-all approach to climate change at the local level. See where you can make the greatest impact and engage with elected officials on those issues.

4. Be persistent and clear. Use several means of communication. Especially when voting is around the corner, use all forms of communication to let elected officials know you expect ambitious cli- mate action. Phone calls, email messages, and all forms of social media can help get your priorities across.

5. When you send an email, put your “ask” in the subject line. Make your request clear so elected officials can count you as a con- stituent that cares about climate solutions.

6. Tell a personal story that brings the issue home. Focus on issues that are important to you to help make your message stick.

7. Say thank you. When elected officials fol- low through with climate action, show gratitude.

8. Join a local organization that focuses on climate issues. If there is not one in your local community, work with your family and neighbors on climate advocacy.

The latest IPCC report shows that climate change already has—and continues to have— adverse impacts on our health, ecosystems, and communities. The findings, however, remind us how critical it is to take action. Join us in these steps toward solutions and invite people in your local environmental health community to join you.


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Hill, N. (2021b, May 26). American Climate Perspectives Survey 2021, vol. III: The rural– urban divide on climate change. Where’s the polarization? ecoAmerica. https://ecoamer vey-2021-vol-iii/

Hill, N. (2022a, May 30). American Climate Perspectives Survey 2022, vol. II: Climate change sparks emotional responses. eco- America. climate-perspectives-survey-2022-vol-ii-part -ii-blog/

Hill, N. (2022b, May 23). American Climate Per- spectives Survey 2022, vol. II: Are Americans making the health and climate connection? ecoAmerica.

Hill, N. (2022c, January 26). American Climate Perspectives Survey 2022, vol. I: More Americans are concerned about climate change than you think. ecoAmerica. https:// tives-survey-2022-vol-i-blog/

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Group II—Impacts, adaptation, and vulner- ability. Fact sheet—North America. https:// outreach/IPCC_AR6_WGII_FactSheet_ NorthAmerica.pdf

NPR, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, & Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (2022). The impact of extreme weather on views about climate policy in the United States.

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