PEORIA — Although the response to the Peoria City/County Health Department’s plan to address global warming has been mostly positive, there were a few climate change deniers who called up, wanting to chat, after the plan was made public at the end of September.
“They were either denying climate change progression, or they wanted to talk about the root causes of climate change,” said Leslie McKnight, director of community health policy and planning for PCCHD. “I can’t debate that. Really, our focus as a health department is the community and public health, and being resilient and adapting to this environment, and advocating for mitigation.”
The gradual nature of climate change makes it easy for people to ignore or discount. Isn’t that something happening on the coasts, where sea levels are rising, or in California, where wildfires are burning? But the truth is, global warming has already affected people in central Illinois — anyone who got stressed out over a flooded basement during the extraordinary rains on Sept. 27, or farmers dealing with a record-breaking wet spring and summer.
“Our environment is affecting our health. That’s the bottom line,” said McKnight. “It’s affecting us physically, and it’s impacting us mentally. People hear the word climate change, and they think it’s so nuanced, far away in some other country. But really, it’s affecting us every day in some way. And I think that’s the message we want to convey.”
The PCCHD is addressing a topic few other health departments have broached. They got a jump-start when PCCHD board member Joyce Harant was asked to speak at the Green New Deal Town Hall meeting at Illinois Central College on May 29. She and McKnight and other PCCHD staff members created a PowerPoint presentation titled “Public Health Impact of Climate Change,” a 15 minute talk that helps bring a concrete reality to the concept of global warming.
“It’s like this presentation connects some dots for people, of what’s happening, how it can have an impact,” said Harant. “Folks, even though they may have read about the science and are knowledgeable about the weather changes, when they hear about putting the dots together between those changes of temperature and of things being able to grow longer, wetter, the chaos of the climate, and you connect that then to what happens to people, they are sort of mesmerized. They never thought about it.”
Though no one knows for sure what’s going to happen, it’s likely that we will see more extreme weather events in coming years.
“The example I use is the frog — you put him in the cold water and you slowly heat it up, and he’ll adjust slowly. But then he can’t, and he dies,” said Harant. “Climate change is really insidious because the changes are slow, the health events and weather events. Somebody could say, ‘Oh, well, that happened 20 years ago, too,’ and you don’t remember how quickly all these bad things are sort of speeding up, happening more often — 500-year floods and all of that.”
Harant’s presentation at ICC went well, prompting the PCCHD board to craft a mission statement to further explore the topic. It is in the early stages of crafting a policy to deal with global warming in central Illinois. The first steps are to determine what could happen here, and the board outlined possible effects in the statement:
“Climate change ... poses major threats to human health, human and animal populations, ecological stability and human social, financial and political stability and well-being. Observed health impacts of climate change include increased heat-related morbidity and mortality, expanded ranges and frequency of infectious disease outbreaks, malnutrition, trauma, violence and political conflict, mental health issues and loss of community and social connections.”
At first, certain populations will suffer more, said Harant.
“People are not equal in their resilience to respond to all of these changes,” she said. “Those that have the least resources are going to be the least resilient. But at some point, no matter how much money you have, if your house gets destroyed every year — like these folks in California dealing with the fires — and you are under constant pressure, no matter how much money you have, you are not going to get away from the mental stress of that.”
PCCHD plans to work with BRACE Illinois, a program created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and facilitated in Illinois by the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health and the Illinois Department of Public Health. BRACE (Building Resilience Against Climate Effects) is a five-step process that helps health officials develop strategies and programs to prepare for the health effects of climate change. As part of that effort, the PCCHD plans to build coalitions with various community partners in central Illinois, said McKnight.
“We will start a public community conversation with our various stakeholders — the hospitals, the social service agencies serving the people, with public health associations and businesses,” she said. “First, we educate about the impacts of climate change in our communities and our environments, and then we build community resilience. How can we begin to be intentional about using our resources to prepare and have a response to these events, and start to coordinate those efforts?”
Education is a big part of the plan, and once more people know how global warming will likely affect their hometown, they may push for policy change on a higher level.
“We need to talk about mitigation,” said Harant. “What impact can we have on reducing climate change, which is the carbon dioxide going into the air, and what policies can we support?”
While climate change is a big problem that seems to dwarf the individual, the truth is, one person can make a difference. Educational efforts will also be aimed at mobilizing individuals to look out for others.
“In the extreme heat we had this summer, there was an elderly couple that had disabilities. They had an air conditioning unit in the home, but the husband couldn’t lift it and put it in the window,” said McKnight. “The wife passed away because she had some existing medical conditions. If someone would have seen the forecast and knocked on the door, asked, ‘Are you OK?’ Just checking on them and making sure they can get through the event. Knowing that we are in our new environment, let’s be intentional in how we interact in our communities.”
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.