Climate Change and Health Equity
Climate change refers to a significant change in the Earth’s climate for an extended period of time. This includes changes in global temperatures and precipitation patterns, which can influence extreme weather and natural disasters. While disaster preparedness cannot prevent the effects of climate change, it can reduce the impact on individuals and communities.
Learn about the HHS Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE), and review their Climate and Health Outlook for how we may be affected in the coming months by climate events.
Effects of Climate Change
Extreme Weather & Climate-related Disasters
Climate change affects every individual and community across the country, but the extent of these effects varies across regions. More frequent and intense extreme weather and climate-related disasters are expected to continue, creating new risks and worsening existing vulnerabilities in communities. Here are the environmental effects of climate change in recent decades:
Heat Waves: Heat waves are abnormal periods of extreme heat that can last from days to weeks. The rise in temperature from climate change has led to more frequent and intense heat waves across the country, especially in the Midwest and Southwest. Heat also increases the risk for other types of disasters such as droughts and wildfires.
Droughts: Some regions are experiencing record periods of extreme drought and less rainfall also due to the rise in temperature from climate change. Droughts affect the water stored in lakes, rivers, wetlands, underground aquifers, etc., and in turn can lead to water shortages.
Wildfires: Wildfire risk is dependent on several factors, including temperature and soil moisture. Climate change creates warmer temperatures and drier conditions, which can increase the risk of wildfires and ability to put them out.
Severe Storms: As the temperature rises, more moisture evaporates into the atmosphere, resulting in heavier rainfall and stronger winds, which has led to more frequent storms across the country. This especially affects regions where disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires have not occurred as often. In return, they are less prepared for a severe storm to strike.
Flooding: Floods are caused by several climate-related factors including extreme or prolonged periods of rain or snow, thunderstorms, storm surges from hurricanes, and snowmelt. The continual rise in sea level in combination with high tides and storm surges could increase flooding in certain regions.
Tropical Storms & Hurricanes: Warmer ocean temperatures and more heat in the atmosphere can lead to increased wind speeds of tropical storms and create longer, more destructive hurricane seasons. As temperatures continue to rise, hurricanes move farther north, which puts new communities at risk.
Certain individuals and communities are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. These populations are often disproportionately affected by, and less resilient to, the health impacts of extreme weather and climate-related disasters. Here are some of the mental and physical consequences:
- Behavioral health issues resulting from climate-related disasters may include stress, anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and increases in both substance use and violence. Older adults, children, and individuals experiencing homelessness are more likely to be psychologically vulnerable to disasters.
- Populations particularly vulnerable to climate change include older adults, children, pregnant women, individuals experiencing homelessness, persons with behavioral health conditions (e.g., those taking certain psychiatric medications), people with lower incomes, individuals with limited English proficiency, migrants or refugees, communities of color, and tribes and indigenous peoples (PDF | 3 MB).
- Areas that depend on natural resources and favorable climate conditions such as tourist or agricultural and rural communities (PDF | 2.8 MB) are most vulnerable to the economic impacts of climate change.
- Climate change disrupts many areas of life and may lead to increased violence and crime, decreased community unity, and increased social instability.
- Individuals who contemplate the magnitude of climate change may also experience anxiety and grief about climate change, general despair, or hopelessness.
Climate & Disaster Resilience Strategies: Preparing for a Disaster
Risk Assessment & Planning
- Measure the natural hazard risks of climate change that are common in the area and could have an impact on individuals and the community.
- Identify vulnerable and marginalized groups in the community with a lower capacity to prepare for and cope with the effects of extreme weather and climate-related disasters.
- Work with local government officials, environmental justice organizations, and businesses to assess the community’s capacity to mitigate natural hazard risks.
- Review and update disaster behavioral health plans to account for the current and projected impacts of climate change and include adaptation strategies (PDF | 853 KB) for how to prepare for and adjust to those risks.
- Draft announcements, warnings, and instructions that will be broadcast to at-risk areas during extreme weather or climate-related disasters and the steps they need to take to ensure their safety.
- Communicate with local organizations to determine available support during climate-related disasters for evacuation and sheltering, search and rescue, environmental impact assessments, hazard mitigation, and food and water distribution.
Outreach & Education
- Partner with local or regional organizations, including behavioral health organizations, to enhance education efforts on the local effects of climate change and benefits of disaster preparedness. These efforts may include media campaigns, presentations to community organizations, information booths at health and environmental fairs, and direct mailings.
- Instruct individuals on how to make an emergency plan and kit for their household when a natural disaster is threatening.
- Partner with community-based organizations that represent vulnerable and marginalized communities in disaster planning.
Responding to a Disaster
- Use multiple outreach methods to distribute emergency response plans and information about available resources in communities—ensure all communications are inclusive of and accessible by all members of the community. These outreach methods may include radio and television announcements, door-to-door messaging, social media posts, flyers, community meetings, and text messages.
- Encourage partner organizations to raise awareness of resources and services available in your community. Collaborate with partners to distribute materials online or in person.
Adapting After a Disaster
- Inform individuals about possible reactions to disasters as well as resources for survivors to prepare for and cope with disasters or traumatic events.
- Work with the community on long-term planning for future conditions that could affect disaster risk such as changes in average temperatures, weather patterns, and sea levels.
- Inform and educate communities on future conditions in an effort to mitigate disaster risk and increase preparedness.
- Explore Department of Health and Human Services and other federal resources to support emissions reduction and climate resilience for healthcare stakeholders.
SAMHSA provides communities and responders with behavioral health resources that help them prepare, respond, and recover from disasters.
Disaster Distress Helpline
Disaster Distress Helpline
24/7, 365-day-a-year crisis counseling and support to people experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters.
These resources may help with disaster planning:
- Disaster behavioral health planning for people with access and functional needs, older adults, and people experiencing homelessness
- Tools section of the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit
- Climate Explorer section of the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit
- Climate Change Adaption Resource Center
- Heat-Related EMS Activation Surveillance Dashboard (EMS HeatTracker)
- National Weather Service
- Planning for Heat Events
- Planning for Future Conditions (PDF | 7 MB)
- How Climate Change Affects Your Health
- Preparing for the Regional Health Impacts of Climate Change in the United States
- Protecting Vulnerable Patient Populations from Climate Hazards: A Referral Guide for Health Professionals
These Disaster Behavioral Health Information Series Resource Center Resources may help with climate change education:
- Beyond Storms & Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change
- Climate Change
- Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability; Summary for Policymakers
- Climate and Disaster Resilience
- Climate Change and Trauma
- Let’s Talk Health & Climate: Communication Guidance for Health Professionals
- Global Climate Change and Children’s Health
- Climate Change and Health Factsheets
- Climate Changes Children’s Health
- Fourth National Climate Assessment; Chapter 14: Human Health