How Climate Change Impacts Public Health Education

College students care about climate change. Those studying public health have unique opportunities to confront its human impacts.
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  • Students care about climate change. Those in public health may confront its effects first.
  • Public health graduates knowledgeable in climate issues are expected to be in high demand.
  • Students passionate about the intersection of the two fields have many academic options.

Many public health experts consider climate change a major risk to human well-being — both physically and mentally. Extreme weather events — multiplying in frequency and intensity — cause death and injury, wipe out infrastructure, and leave vulnerable, impoverished, and dejected populations in their wake.

Short of hurricanes and tsunamis, changes in seasonal weather can also wreak widespread havoc. A hotter world may be more prone to food insecurity and malnutrition, mosquito-borne and water-borne illnesses, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, heat stress, and longer allergy seasons.

These climate-related physical ills, and the sheer threat of climate change itself, also endanger mental health. Climate change poses an existential threat unlike any other. Known as "climate grief" or "climate anxiety," despondency over predicted changes to the natural world is particularly prevalent among Generation Z.

Many college students are already feeling the mental health effects of climate change. Public health students are in the unique position to do something about it.

Climate change issues are increasingly included in public health curriculum. Employers in the field anticipate that public health jobs of the near future will demand knowledge and information about climate change.

Public Health Education Includes Climate Change Competency

Competencies related to climate change are part of the curriculum at a growing number of schools of public health.

Already, schools in Europe and Australia require climate change competency in their public health students, and the United States is following suit. Columbia University runs a Climate and Health Program, and the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire includes Public Health and Environmental Studies.

Broad knowledge of policy analysis, communication, economics, and the downstream effects of climate on health, as well as specific skills such as Geographic Information System mapping, have innumerable applications in the future of public health. Systems thinking and interdisciplinary understanding apply well beyond public health.

While not yet a core competency for public health degrees in the U.S., academic interest in the overlap between health and climate is growing rapidly. The Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health has had climate change on its radar for over a decade. Recently, the Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education proposed a set of Core Climate and Health Competencies for Health Profession Students.

Careers at the Intersection of Climate Change and Public Health

Public health graduates with a focus on climate change could see a growing number of job opportunities as climate concerns, and the global response to them, escalate.

According to a 2020 survey, around nine out of 10 employers in this field (91.7%) "believe the need for public health professionals with training in climate change may grow in the next 5-10 years." Government health and environmental agencies, consulting firms, nongovernmental organizations, and corporations will all be major employers.

One of the earliest tasks of public health professionals interested in climate change could be to make the connection between the two subjects clearer to the public. Many Americans have not yet been introduced to the potential health implications of climate change. Researchers have found that reframing climate change in terms of health makes the issue "more personally relevant, significant, and understandable to members of the public."

In addition to public education, scientists point to emergent health impacts that beg for a real-world application of a public health-meets-climatology background. Public health students interested in international development, or in working with historically excluded communities at home, may be the first to confront the climate-related health burdens.

From air pollution to extreme weather, climate burdens fall disproportionately on the Global South. Impoverished countries that have benefited the least from industrialism are among the world's most polluted, while some of the countries that are the biggest polluters escape the list.

The World Health Organization projected that climate change will be responsible for 300,000 deaths per year worldwide by 2030, with deaths concentrated in vulnerable, developing countries.

In the U.S., a similar dynamic is at play. The wealthy profit from industrial advances; the poor experience the air and water pollution that result.

An Environmental Protection Agency report found that climate change will disproportionately hit low-income communities "who are least able to prepare for, and recover from, heat waves, poor air quality, flooding, and other impacts" and more likely to live and work outside in extreme weather conditions.

As a field, public health aims to protect and promote the well-being of communities. Public health advocates have long connected poverty with poor health outcomes, making low-income communities a key target of public health efforts. The additional pressures climate change places on underprivileged communities doesn't change the established goals of public health, but like climate change itself, only intensifies them.