Local government and climate change: key roles to mitigate threats to public health

A new report identifies Michigan’s greatest public health vulnerabilities impacted by climate change. Local governments play a unique role in protecting public health in the presence of changing climate.

Sewer overflow - Christopher Zurcher
Sewer overflow - Christopher Zurcher

Michigan’s climate is changing and those changes are exposing several public health-related vulnerabilities in the state. That’s the conclusion of a recently released report by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) Division of Environmental Health – Building Resilience Against Climate Effects on Michigan’s Health.

Working with the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments, the Division of Environmental Health’s Climate and Health Adaptation Program explain that the most likely impacts of climate change in Michigan are extreme heat events, periods of increased precipitation intensity leading to flooding, and extreme weather such as heavy snow and freezing rain. Applying those impacts to the field of public health, researchers conclude Michigan’s residents are most vulnerable to five climate-related health threats:

  • Respiratory diseases – Resulting from increased air pollution, a longer growing season, increased pollen levels, and air mass stagnation.
  • Heat related-illnesses – Higher temperatures combined with urban heat island effects increasing heat stress-related morbidity and mortality.
  • Waterborne diseases – Increased flooding that can overburden sewage/sewer systems possibly leading to failure and spread of disease.
  • Vector-borne diseases – Warmer winters and earlier springs that improve conditions suitable for West Nile Virus and the Lyme Disease through more favorable conditions for ticks.
  • Injuries and CO poisoning – Extreme weather events resulting in power outages and more frequent use of portable generators, in addition to traumatic injury from freezing rain and flooding.

While the above human health threats will impact environmental and human systems statewide, impacts are expected to be greatest among Michigan’s most vulnerable populations. Vulnerable populations include the elderly (especially those living alone), young children, persons with pre-existing conditions, those socially isolated, lower income individuals and families, and outdoor workers.

Local governments play a unique role in protecting public health. In addition to the authority and responsibility of Michigan’s 45 public health departments, local governments have roles to play in educating residents about protective measures and behaviors and how to access emergency services. How to avoid heat stress, where to go for cooling centers, recommendations for testing water sources, provide example of this local government responsibility.

Local governments also have a responsibility for emergency preparedness and emergency response, including the preparation of plans, the coordination of responders, and the development of warning systems and advisories. Related responsibility includes identifying areas, populations, and systems at greatest risk of climate-related impacts.

Further, with the unique responsibility of land use regulation and infrastructure provision, local governments are at the frontlines for planning and implementing climate adaptation strategies to minimize expected impacts resulting from extreme heat events and localized flooding. Related adaptation strategies include enlarging storm drains and culverts, and upgrading waste water facilities, increasing building setbacks in flood prone or storm impacted areas, and protecting and installing green infrastructure in urban areas to mitigate storm water and reduce heat island effects.

Local government officials will find the MDHHS report a valuable resource for learning more about the health impacts of climate change on Michigan’s residents and the appropriate adaptation strategies to minimize climate change related impacts. If you would like to learn more about the role of local government in mitigating and adapting to climate change, contact a Michigan State University Extension land use educator for assistance.

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