Preparing for the public health impacts of climate change in Illinois
Climate change impacts, including increases in extreme events such as flooding, heat waves, and drought, have already affected Illinois and are projected to continue. These kinds of extreme events can lead to health problems such as heat-related illnesses, asthma, vector- and water-borne diseases, and mental health issues. With funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health (UIC) and the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) are increasing knowledge and awareness of how climate change impacts public health, and improving the capacity of local health departments and emergency preparedness facilities to address the health effects of climate change.
In September 2012, UIC and IDPH received a three-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Climate-Ready States and Cities Initiative to improve the capacity of the Illinois public health system to adequately address the health effects of climate change. Subsequent funding was awarded by the CDC in 2016 to continue implementing activities to help prepare for and respond to the health impacts of climate change in the state.
The project has prioritized heat-related illness, respiratory health, vector-borne diseases, extreme weather events (e.g., floods, water-borne diseases), and mental health. The long-term goal of this project is to reduce climate-related health illnesses in the state, and activities have primarily focused on working with local public health departments and communities to achieve this goal. Specific project objectives include:
- Increasing knowledge and awareness of climate change and public health within public health departments, physicians, and the general public;
- Improving the capacity of local health departments and emergency preparedness facilities to be able to address the health effects of climate change; and
- Contributing to the evidence-based field of climate change and public health (e.g., publishing in the peer-reviewed literature).
Project activities include:
- Providing financial and technical support to five local public health departments, which includes facilitating strategic planning sessions to increase knowledge and awareness, prioritize health effects, identify adaptation strategies, generate an action plan, and provide guidance for implementation;
- Creating an online heat toolkit for local health departments, which includes guidance around messaging for warning levels, social vulnerability and heat health data for each county, and templates (e.g., press releases, social media) for community outreach during extreme heat events;
- Creating an online flood mapping toolkit for emergency preparedness professionals to use in hazard vulnerability planning activities;
- Creating educational videos for emergency preparedness professionals as well as the general public to increase awareness of climate change and health issues;
- Presenting to a variety of different audiences and professions (e.g., synagogues, churches, urban planners, engineering students, medical students) about the connections between climate change and health; and
- Convening two forums on climate and health. One forum concentrated on the 1995 Chicago heat wave – what happened, why it was so bad, outcomes, and what it could be like in the future. The purpose of this event was to reflect on the past but also to prepare for the future with a specific focus on prioritizing and targeting vulnerable populations.
The following information and resources have been used in the project: (1) National Climate Assessment (2014 and 2018), particularly sections on climate and health and climate projections; (2) American Public Health Association guidance for local health departments addressing climate change, health, and equity (e.g., Climate Change, Health, and Equity: A Guide For Local Health Departments); (3) the CDC’s Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE) framework; (4) data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and (5) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and climate science, among others. Additionally, the project has used communication guidance and tools from the CDC’s Climate and Health Program and the Yale Program on Climate Change and Communication.
Outcomes and Conclusions
As a result of this work, UIC has several products to help Illinois prepare for the public health impacts of climate change. Example products include:
- Illinois Climate and Health Profile Report;
- Videos on climate change and health in Illinois and preparing for extreme weather;
- Summer heat toolkit; and
- Flood vulnerability maps.
The current CDC grant activities are focused on implementation and monitoring the effectiveness of implemented actions. Specifically, this project is assessing the effectiveness of different activities at the local health departments that were awarded funding. Examples of specific metrics include tracking the number of brochures handed out, the number of trainings, and website visits. UIC is also tracking the effectiveness of their trainings with physicians and other public health professionals by conducting pre- and post-training surveys. The surveys are intended to assess whether knowledge and awareness around climate change and public health has increased. Additionally, UIC evaluated the accessibility and usability of their heat toolkit and flood preparedness map.
Numerous factors have helped facilitate adaptation action throughout this project, including:
- Funding from the CDC;
- Experiencing recent extreme events (e.g., floods) that have brought attention to the need for planning and response; and
- Gaining the support of leaders from within the public health department (e.g., local, city, or state).
Some barriers that have arisen include politicization of the climate change issue; challenges connecting communicating the connections between current extreme events (e.g., floods, fires, hurricanes) and climate change; and finding simple ways to communicate the health effects of climate change as it is a complicated topic.
Kershner J. 2019. Preparing for the public health impacts of climate change in Illinois [Case study on a project of the Illinois BRACE Program]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE: https://www.cakex.org/case-studies/preparing-public-health-impacts-climate-change-illinois (Last updated December 2020)