Article City Forum

How Local Officials Can Prepare for the Public Health Impacts of Climate Change

This article is condensed from a white paper produced by the Institute for Local Government’s California Climate Action Network. For more information, visit

Most discussions about climate change focus on how local agencies can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to or limit the impacts of climate change on their communities. While these are key issues that deserve thoughtful and serious attention, the relationship between climate change and public health also merits careful consideration.

Understanding the public health consequences of climate change can help local officials better anticipate and respond to these impacts on their communities. Implementing strategies that prepare a community to adapt to climate change can have additional benefits, such as improving air quality, decreasing chronic disease rates and providing opportunities for physical activity.

The Public Health Impacts of Climate Change

Most scientists agree that the consequences of climate change are likely to include higher temperatures, more extreme weather events (such as heavy rain, storms and flooding) and extreme heat events, reduced snow pack and resulting water shortages. Due to California’s diverse topography and varying local climates, the localized effects of climate change in California are complex and will differ from community to community. The public health consequences of climate change will be significant and far reaching — and are occurring sooner than expected. In addition to extreme heat events and flooding, they include wildfires, an increase in vector-borne diseases and more.

Populations at Risk

The effects of climate change will not be felt uniformly among all communities or populations. For example, extreme heat events will be felt more severely in areas already subject to high temperatures, but communities not accustomed to high temperatures may not be ready for summer heat waves.

Within individual cities or counties, different groups may be more vulnerable than others and thus experience the consequences of climate change differently. Understanding which groups are potentially vulnerable to localized effects can help ensure that local response strategies address their needs. For example, the elderly, low-income residents and those with existing health conditions may be disproportionately affected by heat events or increased air pollution levels. Residents without air conditioning or resources to purchase bottled water may be hit harder during extreme heat events or if water supplies are compromised by flooding.

How Local Officials Can Respond

Public health experts use the concept of resiliency to describe how communities can anticipate risk, limit impacts and bounce back rapidly after being affected. Communities skilled in survival response and experienced in overcoming challenges through adaptability, evolution and growth are the most resilient during periods of difficult change. Another goal of resiliency is to avoid or minimize subsequent effects.

To help ensure that their communities are resilient, local officials can anticipate and plan for the consequences of climate change so that residents and infrastructure bounce back quickly and adapt as needed.

Local officials can make sure their communities are resilient in the face of climate change by taking a number of key near- and long-term actions. Many of the actions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions also have other benefits, including those related to public health and resiliency. Conversely, many strategies to improve public health also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Understand the public health impacts on the community. The first step is to learn how climate change may affect the community. Are longer and more frequent extreme heat events likely? Is there an increased risk for wildfires or flooding? Are there sensitive or potentially vulnerable populations in the community, and where do they live?

Work with the local public health department. County and city public health officials are valuable resources in helping other local officials understand the localized public health implications of climate change. They have access to valuable health data that can illustrate where and among which populations the potential health implications of climate change might occur within the community.

Local health departments also have the experience and expertise to assist in preparing response plans and procedures, such as those for extreme heat events. Health professionals can also provide leadership regarding the health protection benefits of future sustainability activities, such as community design strategies that also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Near-Term Actions

Scientists now believe that the effects of climate change appear to be impacting communities sooner than anticipated. This is especially true for extreme heat events, water shortages and wildfires. Local officials can take the following actions now to achieve more immediate benefits.

Be prepared for extreme weather events.

  • Make sure the community has sufficient cooling centers for vulnerable populations who may be affected by severe and lengthy heat events. Have in place an adequate transportation system to help residents reach the centers. Consider keeping community centers and public buildings with air conditioning open longer during extreme heat events. (This system can be used for extreme cold periods as well.) 
  • Establish reverse 911 and other early warning systems to alert residents of extreme heat or cold events. This includes the elderly and other vulnerable populations, as well as hospitals and nursing facilities. Similar systems can be used to warn residents about potential wildfires and flooding. 
  • Adopt an emergency response plan for extreme heat and cold events. 

Plan for water shortages.

  • Adopt policies and procedures to provide bottled water (or clean water from alternative sources) if normally available water supplies are compromised. 
  • Establish procedures to reach elderly and underserved populations who may not have access to bottled water or water from alternative supplies. 

Plan for wildfires.

  • Work with local and regional fire and police agencies to coordinate responses to wildfires. 
  • Work with public health and medical officials to assist populations vulnerable to respiratory complications from wildfires. 
  • Be prepared for flooding, erosion and runoff in areas hit by wildfires, including potential water contamination. 

Longer-Term Actions

Local officials have an opportunity to address more than one issue when considering longer-term actions to respond to the public health consequences of climate change. This is because many of the longer-term actions have multiple benefits or “co-benefits,” the term often used in the public health community to describe multiple ancillary health benefits of a program, policy or intervention. For example, the elements of how communities are designed — land use and transportation patterns, accessibility to parks, open space and transit, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly features — can positively impact residents’ health both directly and indirectly. Conversely, many of the strategies that reduce vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions also have positive public health benefits.

Plan for healthy neighborhood and community design.

  • Include pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly design features in new and revitalized developments to make it easier for residents to choose alternatives to the car for their daily travel needs. This not only reduces automobile-produced greenhouse gas emissions but also increases residents’ physical activity and reduces their risk for various chronic diseases. 
  • Make parks and open space more accessible to residents, thus promoting active lifestyles. This also reduces automobile trips needed to reach parks and increases open spaces and trees, which store carbon dioxide and reduce the amount of heat stored in streets and buildings.

 Increase access to transit and non-automobile travel.

  • Link homes, shops, businesses and institutions with a convenient and accessible transit system. This can reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution from motor vehicles. 
  • Design and retrofit street and road systems to promote safe walking and bicycling, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing physical activity.

 Support local and regional agriculture.

  • Adopt policies to enhance the resilience of the local food system by increasing access to locally and regionally grown food. This supports local and regional agriculture and economies, reduces emissions from transporting food grown outside the region and helps make fresh foods and produce more available locally, thus promoting healthy eating. 
  • Use locally and regionally grown produce and products in agency facilities, including hospitals, community centers, senior centers and public safety facilities, and at local agency-sponsored events. 

Additional Resources Online

Links to additional resources are posted with the online version of this article at In addition, more detailed discussions about the relationship between climate change and public health and best practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase sustainability are available at

This article appears in the April 2010 issue of Western City
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