The State of Climate-Informed Public Health Planning in Tennessee
The state of Tennessee does not have a formal climate action plan or a public health climate adaptation plan. Adaptation action and planning is sparse at the state level as efforts focus heavily on mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. However, the state health department does include links to information on climate change on its website, and there are some city and county related climate plans and initiatives that address public health as a concern.
Tennessee can expect major climate impacts such as extreme heat, increased flooding, impacts on food and agriculture, drought, and decreased water quality and supply. These impacts present great health and safety risks for vulnerable residents who are already experiencing health inequities and gaps in access to healthcare services. While connections from climate change to public health are minimal at the state level, some efforts are underway to address the public health risks associated with climate change in Tennessee’s major cities, including Memphis and Nashville.
The Tennessee Department of Health does not have an official climate adaptation plan, but does devote a section on its website to climate change. The site includes information on the impacts of health, how individuals can make a difference in their communities, and links to a variety of websites and publications. The site highlights the Centers for Disease Control’s Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE) framework as a tool for identifying public health impacts of climate change and developing adaptation options. The department is in the early stages of building an Environmental Public Health Tracking platform to gather data on exposure and health effects as part of the CDC National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network. Examples includes interactive dashboards for heat- and cold weather-related illnesses and maps of public cooling and warming centers. The department also coordinates emergency preparedness networks such as Volunteer Mobilizer and the Health Alert Network. The Tennessee Volunteer Mobilizer is an online registry for medical and non-medical volunteers to support disaster and hazard response efforts and public health initiatives. The Tennessee Health Alert Network disseminates time-sensitive health information to the public in emergencies. The Network is administered statewide and locally by 13 public health regions within the state.
The 2018 State of Tennessee Hazard Mitigation Plan, issued by the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, includes hazard profiles and risk assessments for threats such as droughts, extreme temperatures, floods, severe storms, wildfires, communicable disease, and severe weather. Such hazards have been identified as natural threats to public health, but the connection is not explicitly made in the plan. Climate change is only mentioned twice in the plan as an issue of future concern for the state.
City- and County-Level Implementation
The Memphis-Shelby County Office of Sustainability released an official Climate Action Plan in January 2020, which focuses on commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to sustain communities into the future. The Action Plan website mentions public health as a core goal and prioritizes equitable, healthy, and prosperous communities. Decreased air quality due to greenhouse gas emissions is the major concern mentioned regarding both public health and climate-related issues, particularly with respect to asthma and other respiratory illnesses. The plan also highlights the Healthy Homes Partnership/Green and Healthy Homes Initiative as an example of working toward climate-related improvements in low-income communities that will directly impact the health of residents (e.g., reducing hospital visits for asthma attacks).
The Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARRC) and its Neighborhood Collaborative for Resilience (NCR) are steering investments in the City of Memphis to provide opportunities for equitable urban development that incorporate diverse racial, economic, and cultural perspectives into community planning; address gaps in the greenway trail connectivity and improves public transportation system connectivity; improve health outcomes for residents; and improve the climate resilience of neighborhoods. Some examples of these efforts include the Heights Line greenway project and the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corporation, which aims to improve community health through workforce and family development initiatives. These efforts are focused on community resilience and development as a means of combating climate change. Public health-related benefits of these initiatives include access to healthy food, improvement in mental wellbeing, clean air and water, as well as greater mobility and access to needed community health resources.
Climate Nashville is a non-profit organization connecting representatives across sectors and scales to rally against climate change. While the organization does not currently have any campaigns concerning public health, the mission of Climate Nashville is to be a leader in the movement of making Nashville a 100% renewable energy economy. By reducing greenhouse gas emissions, there will be improvements to local air quality and public health.
Outcomes and Conclusions
The state of Tennessee lacks official or specific planning and adaptation actions to address climate change impacts on public health. While some initiatives address climate change, the connection to public health is either absent or minimal. Most of the effort across the state is focused on greenhouse gas emissions reductions, rather than on climate adaptation and public health.
Braddock KN & Villegas A. 2020. The state of climate-informed public health planning in Tennessee [Case study on a project of the Tennessee Department of Health and Tennessee Emergency Management Agency]. Product of EcoAdapt’s State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE: https://www.cakex.org/case-studies/state-climate-informed-public-health… (Last updated December 2020)