By Sol Lee

The earth has warmed by 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century. This may seem insignificant to a layperson, but scientists and health experts agree that climate change poses a serious threat not only to the environment, but also to our health. In a recent study in the American Journal of Public Health, Chandrakala Ganesh and Jason A. Smith attempt to shed light on the effect of climate change on health through a case study of one California region.

Ganesh and Smith investigate the public health challenges resulting from climate change in California’s San Joaquin Valley, as well as the state’s efforts to curtail both climate change and its attendant health issues. The authors identify four policy principles to be prioritized moving forward: (1) mainstreaming climate change into broader policy discussions; (2) linking mitigation and adaptation policy efforts; (3) effectively evaluating population needs and concerns; and (4) coordinating public health policy efforts with other government departments.

Significant climate disruptions have plagued California for years. In 2014, temperatures in California were three degrees Fahrenheit higher than those predicted by centuries’ worth of historical data. In the San Joaquin Valley, the repercussions of climate change are particularly acute. Air pollution in the Valley is consistently among the nation’s worst, and between 2012 and 2014, drought conditions forced farmers to dig down 1800 feet in search of groundwater. Over time, this caused the area to sink up to 28 feet. Due to the more extreme climate disruptions facing the San Joaquin Valley, climate-related health risks are also disproportionately severe. In the Valley, the rate of heat-related emergency room visits ranged from 17 to 28 per 100,000 people, while in the rest of the state it was 11 per 100,000. Furthermore, the San Joaquin Valley accounted for 75 percent of reported cases of the fungal infection Valley Fever, which is caused by a combination of heat waves, dust storms, and changing weather patterns, and which increased sixfold in California between 2000 and 2011.

The well-documented mental health consequences of climate change and extreme weather events are also particularly prevalent in the Valley. Drought and unpredictable levels of rainfall contribute to psychological and financial stress that in turn can cause clinical anxiety, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorders. The San Joaquin Valley has some of the highest mental illness rates in California, affecting around 8 percent of adults. This mental health burden is exacerbated by a lack of licensed health care resources.

According to Ganesh and Smith, socioeconomic disparities account for a large share of the climate-related health disparities between the San Joaquin Valley and the rest of the state;. The San Joaquin Valley is socioeconomically distinct within California; it is 48.5 percent Hispanic, about one-third of the population lacks a high school diploma, and most communities are linguistically isolated since 84 percent of the population has limited English proficiency. Furthermore, a Kaiser community health needs assessment found that in several San Joaquin Valley counties, access to health care services ranked as residents’ primary concern.

Although the vast majority of climate scientists agree that human activity influences climate change, it may nevertheless prove difficult to affect change at the federal level. Where federal policies are ineffective or nonexistent, therefore, it may be necessary for states to respond on their own. Ganesh and Smith highlight successful California legislation such as the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act and the 2009 Climate Adaptation Strategy, which effectively connected mitigation policies to environmental policies. However, the authors emphasize the continued importance of coordinated policies that combine mitigation and adaptation.

In the case of both climate change and climate-related health issues, regional and population differences may necessitate the design of unique policy solutions. This is particularly important when one considers that climate-related health problems are most pronounced in areas with vulnerable populations and significant climate disruptions. To promote health equity and protect the well-being of their constituents, policymakers must understand the relationship between climate change and public health.

Article source: Chandrakala Ganesh and Jason A. Smith. “Climate Change, Public Health, and Policy: A California Case Study.” American Journal of Public Health 108, no. S2 (April 1, 2018): S114-S119.