Climate and Health


A project I am currently involved with looks at the impacts of climate change on public health in southeast Florida.  The initial grant focused on looking at socially vulnerable populations and the impact on chronic diseases these groups from climate change.  The question was whether climate change, which in southeast Florida is basically sea level rise, would have an impact on health issues.  On the face of it, the correlation between chronic health conditions and climate seems tenuous although the statistics support the link between chronic health impacts and socially vulnerable populations.  But what is interesting is that in general, the climate vulnerable topography and the socially vulnerable people do not correlate.  This may be a southeast Florida issue, but it is the less socially vulnerable who live in the climate vulnerable topography.

Those familiar with the history of southeast Florida know that makes sense because of the beaches.  The beaches are topographically vulnerable but eh wealthy want to live there anyway. But the problem is more pervasive.  The data actually can be mined further to reveal that the older homes (1940s-1960s), generally smaller and of lower value, were traditionally built on the high ground.  Turns out our ancestors were a little smarter than we thought – they actually thought this out.  Aside from Henry Flagler building the railroad on the high ground, most of the cities were located similarly – on the coastal ridge.  Drainage of the Everglades permitted the western migration of residences – newer and larger, but at lower elevation and mostly reliant on drainage across the ridge to the ocean via canals.  But as sea level rises, the water moves more slowly.

The question that must be asked then is what happens as this housing stock ages?  We already see some newer communities, primarily built for retirees, moving to relieve themselves of the 55+ designations to allow the housing stock to be sold – the children of the retirees don’t want the property and desire to sell it – often quickly.  To increase speed of sales (and ultimately retaining some value), eliminating the 55+ opens younger families to move in.  However the lower value of the properties makes them conducive to migration of people who are social vulnerability, so migration may be toward social vulnerable people moving to topographically challenged property.  That portends poorly for the link between climate and health in the future.

Two issues arise from the research.  First future health vulnerability from climate may be more related to vectors and waterborne disease than chronic health effects.  That expands the health vulnerability to all populations.  The second issue is that storm water, sewer roadway and water infrastructure may relieve some pressure on these topographically vulnerable properties, but the people who are moving to then will have significantly less ability to pay for those improvements, creating a political conundrum that will that a significant amount  of leadership to overcome.  That means that resiliency must be built into infrastructure and redevelopment projects now, to address future conditions.  Building in resiliency is not currently being considered by local planners and engineers because the situation is not well understood and a 50 year planning horizon is not the norm.  Also, it would likely create a firestorm of fuss from developers who would pay the costs, which discourages good planning.

Finally, if things accelerate, wealthier parties may begin to see a retreat from vulnerable eastern beaches to higher ground as being a reasonable concept.  However the high ground is currently occupied by socially vulnerable people, creating a potential area of conflict over the fate of displaced residents who’s social status may force them toward the vacant, topographically vulnerable properties.  This is a future problem for planners, developers and officials approving new development with an eye to displacement a concept not in the current thought process.  Thinking about vulnerability means a lot of infrastructure must not only be constructed, but maintained meaning local public works and utility budgets will need to increase in kind.  That means higher rates and charges to populations that may have limits to their ability to pay   Stay tuned…..

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