State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Public Health and Climate Change in the Gulf Region

The U.S. Gulf Coast has already felt the lasting effects of extreme weather on public health and infrastructure, and a new study says things could get worse with climate change.

New Orleans on Sept. 7, 2005. Neighborhoods and highways throughout the area remained flooded as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Photo: Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA
New Orleans on Sept. 7, 2005. Neighborhoods and highways throughout the area remained flooded as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Photo: Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

The region’s large population, substantial amount of at-risk infrastructure and low-lying coastal geography make it particularly vulnerable to increases in extreme temperature, sea level rise and possibly more intense, if fewer hurricanes. A new study by Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness and the University of Washington contends that this vulnerability on the Gulf Coast and in other coastal regions will engender large social costs if left unattended.

Climate change is likely to make the Gulf Coast less hospitable and more dangerous for its residents, and may prompt substantial migration from the region. The study also addresses the possibility of an increase in migration into the Gulf from other equally impacted nations of the Caribbean Basin. Public health impacts may be further exacerbated by the concentration of vulnerable people and infrastructure, as well as the region’s coastal geography.

“Climate change may amplify existing public health impacts, such as heat-related morbidity and mortality, malnutrition resulting from droughts, and injury and deaths following exposure to floods,” said Dr. Elisa Petkova of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. “Although future trends are difficult to project, climate change may also facilitate the re-introduction of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever to the Gulf Coast and other vulnerable coastal regions.”

As seen in the aftermath of large-scale disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, such storms’ devastating effects are amplified for the poor. But, the study says, a comprehensive adaptation strategy for the Gulf Coast region will reduce threats to population health posed by rapid climate change.

The National Center for Disaster Preparedness makes a number of key recommendations, including:

  • The Federal government should establish a multi-agency permanent task force on the human and population impacts of climate change, charged with identifying innovative adaptation strategies. This task force should include relevant government agencies, as well as relevant private sector stakeholders.
  • Funds should be made available for the simultaneous implementation of adaptation strategies to improve individual, public health system, and infrastructure resilience.
  • Adaptation efforts should follow a course set by the Federal task force and should attempt to integrate hazard-specific adaptation measures into city, state and regional level emergency management plans, particularly in high-risk regions.
  • Researchers should further explore the linkage between weather events and infectious disease with an aim to enhance surveillance and intervention efforts.
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