Preparing for Climate Change Impacts on Public Health in Georgia
Georgia does not have a state climate change adaptation plan or a formal state-issued public health and climate adaptation plan. The Georgia Department of Public Health (GDPH) does, however, have several initiatives which aim to address the health impacts of climate-related events. In addition, the state hazard mitigation plan directly addresses the effects of climate change and extreme weather events on public health and safety, including degraded air quality, extreme heat, flooding, and water-borne disease. Several notable city and nongovernmental initiatives also aim to increase action on climate change and public health. For example, the City of Atlanta was selected as one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities and created a strategy to guide urban resilience in light of climate change and socioeconomic problems such as income and housing inequities.
A rapidly changing climate poses significant health and safety risks to communities and to the built environment. The climate impacts of concerns in Georgia include rising temperatures, wildfires, sea level rise, extreme weather events, flooding, and droughts.These stressors threaten the accessibility of healthcare, food, transportation, and housing. Temperature increases due to climate change put Georgia at higher risk for detrimental heat waves that can lead to heat-related illness, such as heat stroke. Additional health impacts include increasing rates of asthma; vector-, food-, and water-borne diseases; and mental stress and grief.
In general, there are few state-initiated actions to integrate climate change into public health planning. However, some state-level programs that indirectly address climate change and associated health threats through environmental health emergency preparedness and hazard mitigation planning exist. Other efforts include the City of Atlanta’s climate action plan and nongovernmental efforts by the TransFormation Alliance and the Georgia Climate Project.
The Georgia Department of Public Health (GDPH) hosts an Environmental Health Emergency Preparedness webpage that includes information on how severe weather impacts health; an Environmental Health Emergency Response Plan; disaster cleanup guides; and contact information for the agency and resource centers. While climate change is not directly mentioned in these materials, there are many connections made between environmental events and public health impacts. For example, the Environmental Health Emergency Response Plan accounts for emergency disaster preparedness, response, recovery, and hazard mitigation measures. The plan highlights topics such as wastewater, vector control, and food- and water-borne illnesses. Public Health and Medical Services are identified as emergency support functions responsible for providing the necessary measures to prevent and control diseases that are related to emergencies. The plan provides a Disaster Action Chart, which lists emergencies and disasters that are most likely to occur, including hurricanes, flooding, extreme weather, and extreme heat. The GDPH also coordinates an Environmental Health Strike Team comprising state and county health professionals that serve as rapid responders to help communities recover from health impacts.
The GDPH, Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency (GEM/HS), and the Citizen Corps developed the Ready Georgia campaign, a publicly-available mobile phone application that provides alerts regarding severe weather and potential disasters. The application provides information on drought, extreme heat, flooding, and general public health emergencies. In addition, Ready Georgia can be used to create a disaster plan, build a disaster kit, and support community emergency preparedness. GEM/HS also hosts a Hazard Mitigation Resources webpage, which includes planning guides, handbooks, and example worksheets that communities can use. Many of the resources included on the GEM/HS webpage are issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In addition, the State Hazard Mitigation Strategy includes explicit links between climate change and hazards. The plan was updated in 2019 as a collaboration between GEM/HS and multiple state agencies, including the GDPH and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Hazards noted as likely to be impacted by climate-related stressors include extreme heat, drought, extreme weather events, flooding, wildfires, and coastal hazards such as sea level rise. The plan makes a connection between climate-related hazards and public health by providing the example that a decrease of air quality due to wildfire may result in negative health outcomes for impacted communities (e.g., respiratory illnesses). Public health concerns are also mentioned briefly in connection with major inland and coastal flooding events. Such events, exacerbated by climate change, often affect public health through the spread of water-borne diseases and may also threaten access to healthcare services via damage to transportation or infrastructure.
City and County Implementation
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed a Social Vulnerability Index (SVI), which displays a community vulnerability considering human health, human and natural stresses, disease outbreaks, and socioeconomics. The City of Atlanta straddles DeKalb and Fulton counties, which have overall SVI scores of 0.6982 and 0.5610 respectively. These scores indicate a moderate to high level of vulnerability.
The highest scores between these counties include socioeconomic (e.g., unemployment, income status), housing and transportation (e.g., no vehicle, mobile homes, crowding), and minority/language (e.g., minority status, English as a Second Language) vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities are often due to topography, inadequate infrastructure, and poor water management practices.
In Atlanta, climate-related vulnerabilities include the flooding of homes, densely-packed development resulting in heat islands, and increasing of energy bills. The City of Atlanta has taken several measures to address these issues, most notably the 2015 Climate Action Plan, which highlights climate-related health impacts related to increasing air temperatures and air and water quality. The plan focuses heavily on the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions within the city, which may lead to improvements in the health impacts related to climate change (e.g., asthma).
The city also released Clean Energy Atlanta: A Vision for a 100% Clean Energy Future, which addresses the positive effects greenhouse gas emissions reductions could have on air quality and public health. In addition, Atlanta has implemented numerous green infrastructure projects that may improve air and water quality and enhance overall public health and wellbeing. As one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities, Atlanta created the Resilient Atlanta strategy to guide urban resilience in light of climate change and socioeconomic problems such as income and housing inequities. The strategy was created in 2017 in consultation with a 100-member advisory group comprising nonprofit, academic, business, and faith-based organizations as well as resident feedback. Implementation of the strategy is intended to be shared across sectors with the Mayor’s Office of Resilience as the lead entity responsible for strategy updates and progress reports.
In 2016, the coastal city of Tybee Island released a Sea Level Rise Adaptation Plan to address flooding risks and options for action. The plan was one of the first major climate-related adaptation reports out of Georgia and addresses some of the most major impacts sea level rise will have on the island’s infrastructure, including flooding of houses, backup of stormwater drainage systems, and tidal flooding that disrupts transit and emergency evacuation routes. While the plan mentions rising sea levels as a threat to public health, it does not include direct steps to tackle specific health concerns. Public health is addressed, however, in the plan’s goal to elevate municipal well pumps, which will allow access to clean drinking water that is uncompromised by saltwater intrusion and minimize the threat of flooding and potential spread of water-borne diseases.
Areas of high social vulnerability in Georgia (e.g., Southwest Atlanta) have traditionally been underrepresented in government initiatives to address climate change. This is being addressed by nongovernmental efforts such as the Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC) program, an initiative of Enterprise Community Partners, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the Low Income Investment Fund, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. SPARCC is providing engagement, education, and employment opportunities centered on climate adaptation and building healthy communities in Georgia. Other partnerships such as TransFormation Alliance (TFA) and its members (e.g., Southface Institute) are also making an impact in addressing health concerns related to climate change.
TFA, a collaboration of organizations around Atlanta, offers residents opportunities for a higher quality of life. In 2019, TFA granted $500,000 to organizations around Atlanta to promote climate, health, and racial equity programs. One of the grantees—The Southface Institute—has created a workforce development program (Atlanta CREW [Culture-Resilience-Environment-Workforce]) to train communities in green infrastructure construction and maintenance, while promoting community arts and culture. Atlanta CREW is training local residents, builders, and developers on green infrastructure installation and maintenance. This program address some of the major climate threats to the city (e.g., flooding and rising temperatures) that affect community public health.
The Georgia Climate Project is another example of a nongovernmental effort tackling the public health threats due to climate change. The Georgia Climate Project aims to push Georgia forward in tracking, analysis, and engagement concerning climate change impacts. The Project conducts scientific investigations on climate-related topics such as food security impacts, water supply and quality, public health and healthcare services, and adaptation strategies.
Outcomes and Conclusions
While direct connections regarding climate change and public health are not being addressed at the state-level, there are a series of initiatives in Georgia which are building a foundation for adaptation action. Local programs, such as Atlanta CREW, also aim to address potential issues associated with adaptation-friendly measures. For example, a major concern related to green infrastructure and open space projects is the potential for displacement and gentrification from improvements to public facilities and community assets. Working directly with community members through programs such as CREW on the design and implementation of projects may alleviate these risks.
Braddock KN & Villegas A. 2020. Preparing for climate change impacts on public health in Georgia. [Case study on a project of the Georgia Department of Public Health]. Product of EcoAdapt’s State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from https://www.cakex.org/case-studies/preparing-climate-change-impacts-pub… (Last updated December 2020)