Climate change must be at the core of public health

While climate change poses a huge threat to our health, tackling this issue also presents an opportunity. Earlier this year, the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change was formed to bring together a number of health institutions – including the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal Society of Medicine, the BMJ and The Lancet, among others – to encourage better approaches to tackle climate change that also protect and promote public health.

Many of the measures that could be taken to mitigate and adapt to climate change have benefits for our health and wellbeing. Well-insulated and ventilated homes, active travel, flood and heat resilient green space, strong social cohesion, a sustainable food system and diet, as well as a reduction in air pollution –these actions all have positive health benefits.

As the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change notes, many climate change policies represent ‘cost-effective and sensible public health interventions’.

But what is being done by the health community at the local level, in response to climate change?

The transfer of public health services from primary care trusts to local authorities in England provides an opportunity for different professions to come together, and address the problems that climate change presents both to our health and our quality of life. Each unitary and upper-tier local authority now has a health and wellbeing board, which provides a mechanism for setting priorities across the health and social care sector to tackle climate change collaboratively in the local area.

At NEF, we have been working with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to explore how public health departments and their partners are responding to climate change.

While the shift of public health departments was thought to have facilitated greater collaboration on the wider environmental and social issues that affect public health, the full potential of this structural change has not yet been realised. Heavy cuts to budgets have led local authorities to focus on narrower priorities. As action on climate change is largely non-statutory and its effects are generally longer-term, this issue has rarely been regarded as a strategic priority by public departments and their partners.

But the good news is that there are pockets of good practice happening across the country, with climate action being driven by individuals championing initiatives locally.

Middlesbrough Council, for instance, has been working closely with Middlesbrough Environment City (MEC) to create healthy, sustainably communities. Middlesbrough Council and MEC have together delivered a range of fuel poverty, food growing and active travel schemes, including support for vulnerable people to access home energy efficiency measure; the promotion of local food procurement in Middlesbrough’s hospitals; an urban farming programme for food growing in public spaces; and a series of activities aimed at promoting active travel.

Islington Council, meanwhile, has a dedicated seasonal health and affordable warmth (SHAW) team within the environment department which works closely with the public health team. SHAW’s work is dedicated to tackling fuel poverty and the effects of summer heat. They have developed the seasonal health interventions network, a referral scheme from over 90 organisations in the borough to the SHAW team, who then assess the residents for a range of 30 potential services, from grants for insulation to air quality alerts and support.

SHAW also works to support vulnerable residents to cope with the impact of summer heat. Its Climate Resilience Islington South project, for instance, aimed to understand how residents cope in hot weather and how they can be better prepared. They then delivered Cool It, a series of events for community groups focused on heat resilience.

Despite the many barriers, there are some examples of action being taken. But we need to learn from these and embed climate change as a strategic priority that is at the core of public health services.

  • The report Public Health in a Changing Climate can be accessed here.

This article first appeared in Environment Journal’s sister publication New Start.

Photo by ell brown

Daniel Button

Daniel Button

Researcher in social policy, New Economics Foundation

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