Some US states highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change are least prepared to tackle it, warns study
Americans most vulnerable to climate crisis include those who are very young or very old, people with a disability, and those living in poverty
Climate change poses serious threats to human health, and while the issue is often framed as a risk for the distant future, it is a reality for communities across the US, many of whom are already dealing with longer and more intense heatwaves, more powerful hurricanes, and other devastating impacts. Despite this, many US states that are at greatest risk from climate change are also least prepared to deal with it and protect its residents during climate-related events, caution researchers.
The report assesses all 50 states and the District of Columbia on their level of preparedness for the health effects of climate change. The authors found a great deal of variation: some states have made significant preparations, while others have barely begun this process. “The more vulnerable states were, the less prepared they tended to be,” they emphasize.
Many of these high vulnerability/low prepared states are in the Southeast or Southern Great Plains. According to the analysis, of “greatest concern” are eight states that are in the most-vulnerable or least-prepared group and include Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia.
“We wanted to better understand the risks posed to individual states and their level of readiness to protect residents. Our report gives officials at all levels practical information so they can do more to help their residents prepare,” writes lead author, Matt McKillop, a senior researcher at Trust for America’s Health.
Another group of states – Colorado, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia – have done much more to prepare. The researchers note that every state, including those rated as most prepared, can do much more to protect residents from the harmful health impacts of climate change.
“The impacts of climate change on our health demand that policymakers respond. Our goal is that every single state will take this as a clarion call and think of this report as a starting point to do more to help make residents’ lives safer,” emphasizes Megan Latshaw, a scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a co-author.
The team calculated each state’s vulnerability by looking at a range of factors. While environment and geography are crucial, social and demographic factors also play a key role, they explain. Some populations and communities are especially vulnerable. High-risk residents include those who are very young or very old, people with a disability, and those living in poverty. The investigators also note that often “the legacy and continued presence of systemic racism, including patterns of deprivation and discrimination,” make communities of color very vulnerable.
According to scientists, some climate-related events, such as hurricanes and wildfires, have obvious health impacts. But others are more insidious, including more frequent heat waves, chronic flooding, deteriorating air quality, and increases in vector, water, and food-related disease. While such threats already exist, climate change exacerbates them, and also shifts or expands the regions and populations at risk, explains the team. Besides, all of these effects can take a severe toll on mental health and well-being, they add.
“Each of these categories represents known and, in many cases, longstanding threats to human health. That is, climate change exacerbates existing threats through increased frequency, duration, and intensity of exposure. It also shifts or expands the locations of exposures, introducing threats to populations that were not previously at risk,” warn experts.
At the federal level, the team recommends enacting legislation requiring a national strategic plan, fully funding the climate and health program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), providing funding for adaptation research and scientific training, and strengthening the public health infrastructure and its workforce, including by modernizing data and surveillance capacities. Prioritizing equity and resilience by supporting and protecting high-risk populations and by addressing the social determinants of health, is another suggestion.
At the state level, experts call for bolstering states’ core public health preparedness capabilities, establishing ongoing, dedicated funding and staff for climate-related preparations, engaging in close coordination with local and federal partners, and planning with communities, not for them.
“Given the size and diversity of the country, each state and its communities will experience climate change differently. State leaders must understand their particular risks and vulnerabilities to plan effectively. In areas of a state where vulnerability is higher, state leaders should invest more in adaptation and preparedness. Likewise, states that are more vulnerable overall should go to greater lengths to adapt to climate-related hazards,” emphasize authors.