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What should the United States and others do to mitigate or address the health consequences of climate change?

Question submitted by Lindsey Wahlstrom, from Columbia University, March 7, 2013

Answered by: Thomas Bollyky, Senior Fellow for Global Health, Economics, and Development

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Climate change has both direct and indirect health consequences. Direct consequences include those resulting from high temperatures and severe weather events; while indirect ones arise from changing air and water quality and ecological shifts that favor tropical diseases and parasites.

The good news is that the U.S. government has taken the first step to address this challenge, which is recognizing that there is one. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) established an official policy on the health effects of climate change in 2006 and a full-fledged program in 2009. Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Global Change Research Program have released research on climate change and health.

The bad news is that U.S. programs have not gone too far beyond researching the problem. The CDC provides technical guidance to state and local health departments and foreign governments on preparing for the health effects of climate change. However, there is limited budget for those activities and almost none to support implementation. Additionally, international efforts to address the root causes of climate change appear stalled. Substantial new aid for climate change mitigation is unlikely amid the sluggish global economy, meaning that state and national governments are largely on their own.

USAID could help by incorporating greater health programs into its climate change initiatives, including meningitis vaccination during droughts and improving sewage infrastructure to mitigate the health effects of floods. With modest funds, the CDC and World Health Organization could do more to help developing countries create and pilot the health mitigation strategies they will need amid changing climate conditions.