Screenshot from the Health Impact Project website

Local officials emphasize benefits of broad engagement to finding effective approaches

This article was originally published by The Pew Charitable Trusts on their website on November 27, 2019. We’re re-posting here to share these innovative community solutions, which highlight the unique role local governments can play in addressing the health impacts of climate change.

Bethany Rogerson is a senior manager, Mimi Majumdar Narayan is a principal associate, and Dasha Dokshina is an associate with the Health Impact Project.

Local efforts to simultaneously address the impact of a changing climate and improve public health require broad and meaningful community engagement. That was one of the consistent themes at an October gathering in Minneapolis of leaders from 11 communities throughout the United States.

Hosted by the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts, the one-day meeting provided an opportunity for local officials from Arizona, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Utah to highlight their successes and the lessons learned in meeting challenges at the intersection of climate change and health.

Four of the represented municipalities—Baltimore; Minneapolis; Princeton, New Jersey; and Tempe, Arizona—are working with grants from the Health Impact Project to develop implementable strategies that address the impact of climate change while promoting public health. Specifically, the grants support local jurisdictions working across sectors—such as housing, transportation, emergency preparedness, and public health—to improve resiliency, preparedness, and sustainability in their communities.

The impacts of global climate change are already being felt in the United States and are projected to intensify in the future, according to the latest National Climate Assessment, published in 2018. All regions of the country will face consequences, but the effects will differ by location. Some communities, for example, expect to experience increased flooding, which poses health risks, including infectious diseases and exposure to chemical hazards. Others must contend with a rising number of summer days with temperatures above 110 degrees.

Many local leaders have recognized the need to find solutions tailored to their communities, and the gathering offered a chance to bring people from different places together to learn from one another. Attendees provided examples that illustrate the unique challenges each community faces. Still, common themes emerged around the value of evidence-based policymaking, collaboration, advocacy, capacity-building, partnerships, and community engagement.

Nicole Antonopoulos, sustainability manager for Flagstaff, Arizona, detailed the benefits of involving community members in developing the city’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, which provides a roadmap of activities the community will take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change. More than 1,000 community members took part in developing the goals, actions and strategies outlined in the plan. The document assesses risks and vulnerabilities throughout the community, as well as tensions, for example, between land conservation and affordable housing.

Regardless of the type of local impact, participants emphasized the importance of identifying the people most affected by potential climate change challenges, understanding people’s individual experiences, and building trust to prepare for and respond to climate-related incidents.

Some officials also highlighted successes from engaging community members and organizations through neighborhood-based leadership training, and inviting stakeholders from multiple governmental departments and organization types to develop cross-sector solutions to address common challenges. They also pointed to valuable resources such as ecoAmerica’s “Moving Forward” guide, which provides specific strategies for engaging community members and other stakeholders to bring climate solutions to scale.

The meeting brought together representatives from the growing number of communities that are starting to recognize and respond to the risks that climate change poses to the everyday lives and livelihoods of residents. Learning lessons from others and using data-driven strategies to explore solutions at this intersection of health and climate maximizes opportunities to improve physical, social, and economic well-being for all.