by Rachel McIntosh-Kastrinsky
The theme of the 2020 NC BREATHE Conference (Health, Equity, and the Climate Crisis in North Carolina) arose from the conference proceedings and participant discussions of 2019 NC BREATHE. Climate change will exacerbate the health, social, and economic disparities in communities that already face poorer health outcomes. Attendees and speakers at 2019 NC BREATHE stressed that when preparing for climate change impacts, policymakers must focus on safeguarding the most vulnerable populations through a lens of equity and environmental justice. The following is an excerpt from our 2019 NC BREATHE Post-Conference Report.
Climate change is a risk “multiplier” and the ultimate social determinant of health. In North Carolina climate change is expected to continue to cause increases in temperature, precipitation extremes, flooding events, wildfires, sea level, and ocean warming and acidification, according to the U.S. Fourth National Climate Assessment released November 2018.
These changes will amplify associated health problems such as heat stress, vector-borne infectious diseases, mental health stress, and triggers for vulnerable populations (such as people with heart disease or asthma). While these effects will be felt statewide, they will exacerbate the health, social, and economic disparities in communities that already face poorer outcomes, making climate change an environmental justice crisis in North Carolina.
Low-income communities, older adults, children, and some communities of color are disproportionately affected by a “cumulative exposure” to climate health risks. Rural populations in eastern North Carolina have a higher population of older adults and generally have lower education levels, poorer health outcomes, and reduced access to medical care than populations in urban areas. They are also at a higher risk for many climate change impacts, including three of the four key messages from the NCA4: 1) increasing flood risks in coastal and low‐lying regions; 2) transformed natural ecosystems; and 3) economic and health risks for rural communities. North Carolina also has the highest heat-related death rate in the US, with particularly high rates in Eastern and rural North Carolina. This all poses a serious challenge to rural populations that already have limited access to public health services.
In addition to health costs, the Southeastern US can expect higher economic costs associated with climate mitigation than most other regions of the United States due to projected increases in wildfires, inland flooding, coastal property damage, vector-borne infectious diseases, and reduced outdoor labor hours.
Climate change will also amplify other environmental justice challenges in North Carolina. For example, the majority of hog CAFOs in North Carolina are located in the eastern part of the state, which is more susceptible to climate change risks and already has underlying health disparities. Climate change will feed into and exacerbate the quality-of-life problems faced by communities living near CAFOs.
North Carolina must take action to mitigate and prepare for climate change impacts to protect the health and well-being of all residents, with a focus on safeguarding the most vulnerable populations through a lens of equity and environmental justice.
Want to learn more? 2020 NC BREATHE will provide an interactive forum for North Carolinians to discuss health and equity in the face of climate change. Join conversations with health professionals, community advocates, policymakers, and researchers working together to find solutions. Register for 2020 NC BREATHE today!
To read the full 2019 NC BREATHE Post-Conference Report, click here.