OHA report on health impacts of climate change exposes inequities

PORTLAND, Ore. — A new report on the public health impacts of rapidly accelerating climate change in Oregon says natural disasters such as extreme storms, floods and wildfires continue to worsen, and disproportionately affect communities of color, tribal communities and lower-income people in the process.

Oregon Health Authority’s Climate and Health in Oregon 2020 report, released today, builds on the findings of the 2014 Oregon Climate and Health Profile Report, which warned of increased risk of injury, illness and death associated with rising temperatures, increasing wildfires and other extreme weather events. The report fulfills a directive to OHA in Gov. Kate Brown’s Executive Order on Climate Change (EO 20-04). The executive order directs state agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect the most vulnerable communities in Oregon from adverse effects of rapidly accelerating climate change.

Since the first report was published, Oregon has seen its hottest years on record and its most severe wildfire events in modern history. The state has experienced damaging floods, its lowest snowpack, and many counties have declared drought emergencies.

“We’re seeing more heat-related hospitalizations during summer heat waves and more asthma-like ER visits during wildfires,” said Rachael Banks, Oregon Public Health Division director. “We’re feeling the effects of these disasters and unfortunately we know they are only going to get worse.”

The report describes climate hazards, recent events, future climate projections, and examples of public health action. It also emphasizes that many health effects are cross-cutting and will disproportionately affect communities of color, tribal communities, farmworkers and underinvested rural communities. Disruptions in local economies, social safety net systems, and housing will further affect Oregonians already experiencing financial and social stressors.

“The current global pandemic further exposes these inequities and makes addressing the climate crises even more challenging,” said Patrick Allen, OHA director. “The mental health effects of these compounding disasters cannot be overlooked. Traumatic events like the recent wildfires, as well as the anxiety and fear about what the future holds, are having very real impacts on peoples’ daily well-being.”

While the challenges are complex and far-reaching, Banks said, work is already being done to prepare. “Together with partners, the Public Health Division is working to raise awareness of the inequitable ways climate change affects Oregonians and the actions we can take today to build community resilience across our state,” she said.

For example, this year OHA led the development of an interagency Climate Equity Blueprint to assist state agencies in integrating equity considerations into climate adaptation planning and action. OHA’s Oregon Climate and Health Program also released a report on social resilience, summarizing themes from a series of listening sessions with different communities in Oregon on the topic of climate change and social resilience.

In the coming year, the program plans to work closely with organizations serving tribal and rural Latinx communities on projects that support culturally specific solutions to wildfire recovery and resilience.

“Working with our community partners to prevent and prepare for climate change will further enable us to address some of the root causes of health inequities and preventable diseases in Oregon,” Banks said.

For more information, visit OHA’s Climate Change and Public Health webpage at http://www.healthoregon.org/climate.