Adapting to the Changing Climate: An Assessment of Local Health Department Preparations for Climate Change-Related Health Threats, 2008-2012
Climate change poses a major public health threat. A survey of U.S. local health department directors in 2008 found widespread recognition of the threat, but limited adaptive capacity, due to perceived lack of expertise and other resources.
We assessed changes between 2008 and 2012 in local public health departments' preparedness for the public health threats of climate change, in light of increasing national polarization on the issue, and widespread funding cutbacks for public health. A geographically representative online survey of directors of local public health departments was conducted in 2011–2012 (N = 174; response rate = 50%), and compared to the 2008 telephone survey results (N = 133; response rate = 61%).
Significant polarization had occurred: more respondents in 2012 were certain that the threat of local climate change impacts does/does not exist, and fewer were unsure. Roughly 10% said it is not a threat, compared to 1% in 2008. Adaptation capacity decreased in several areas: perceived departmental expertise in climate change risk assessment; departmental prioritization of adaptation; and the number of adaptation-related programs and services departments provided. In 2008, directors' perceptions of local impacts predicted the number of adaptation-related programs and services their departments offered, but in 2012, funding predicted programming and directors' impact perceptions did not. This suggests that budgets were constraining directors' ability to respond to local climate change-related health threats. Results also suggest that departmental expertise may mitigate funding constraints. Strategies for overcoming these obstacles to local public health departments' preparations for climate change are discussed.