Climate change and public health professionals: A survey of the International Health Section of APHA

The following report summarizes the results of a climate change survey sent out to the members of the APHA IH section. The section’s chair and co-chair, members Rose Schneider and Hala Azzam, compiled the results below.

According to the Lancet Commission’s 2010 report, Managing the Health Effects of Climate Change “global warming is the biggest threat to health in the current century.” Yet most of the public health workforce have not yet been trained to deal with the challenges of climate change. The situation is exacerbated in low and middle-income countries. Faced with limited resources to mitigate or adapt to the increased frequency of extreme weather events, these countries have little infrastructure capacity to deal with, or recover from, climate change related events.

In 2012, the APHA International Health Section Climate Change Working Group (IH CCWG) conducted a brief survey of its members. Questions revolved around the current activities, level of knowledge and interest in climate change as it pertains to the work members do in developing countries. The survey was administered online and had a response rate of about 12% (186/1600 IH members) with 82% of the respondents completing the survey.

Basic demographics results indicated that more than 60% of the respondents were female, and about 40% of the respondents were between the ages of 21-39, and 30% between the ages 40-59. The respondents came from different work environments, with the largest percentage working in academia (~40%) and in NGOS (~30%). About 90 % of the respondents held a graduate or postgraduate degree, and the majority lived in the U.S. Some respondents, however, lived in Asia, Africa, Australia, the Pacific islands, Europe and Central Asia.

When asked about their climate change knowledge and awareness, half of the respondents reported that climate change is very relevant to the international work they do, and about 30% answered somewhat relevant. When asked about climate events in the country/ies where they worked, about 70% indicated changes in rainfall patterns and severe weather events such as hail, storm and floods, and about half indicated an increase in the number of hot days or nights. Awareness of the impact of climate change was high, with about 70% reporting changes in food production, food price hikes, and decreased access to water. Nearly 50% reported awareness of increased population migration, increased malaria incidence at higher altitudes, and deaths due to severe heat. At the same time, 1/3 of respondents reported not knowing what adaptation or mitigation processes or systems exist in the countries where they work. When it came to their views on the five most important activities to address climate change in international health work, more than 40% identified water conservation, climate change adaptation planning, green technologies, research, and development of evidence based approaches.

The two most frequently identified barriers for respondents to address or to integrate climate change activities into their work were; limited political/institutional support and inadequate funding. In response to what kinds of support would help overcome barriers, about 70% reported needing information on how to integrate climate change into ongoing public health activities, and close to 60% expressed the need for training and awareness campaigns, and for tools specific to climate change activities, such as vulnerability assessments, epidemiologic mapping, community preparedness planning, and basic understanding of green technologies.

In conclusion, while 80% of the respondents identified climate change as being relevant to their international health work, less than 20% currently incorporate climate change approaches into their activities. Furthermore, only 1/3 anticipated incorporating climate change into their work in the future. Yet, respondents clearly identified water conservation, climate change adaptation planning, research and development of evidence-based approaches, as well as the use of green technologies, as important activities to be implemented in international health programs. Indeed when probed about what steps, they, as individuals, currently take to reduce their carbon footprint, 93%, an overwhelming majority, stated that they turned off unneeded lights, 86% recycled at home, and more than 65% used public transport/carpooled or walked, lowered the thermostat in winter, turned off electronics, and reduced their trash. When asked about what the IH section should do in climate change roughly 3/4 of the respondents indicated the need to be more active in advocacy and policy, and more than half indicated the need for sharing information (tools, lessons learned, a virtual library, etc.), and joint sessions with other APHA sections and working groups.

In response to the needs expressed by the respondents, we have compiled a brief key resources list that we hope will be useful to readers:

We thank the I.H. Section members for their participation in the survey.
Rose Schneider, RN, MPH
Hala Azzam, PhD, MPH, CPH
IH Climate Change Working Group

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