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Climate, Water, and Carbon Program

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Joint Project: Engaging the Public Health System in Reducing the Societal Carbon Footprint


This project is designed to, in part, address the CWC question of: "How is the carbon cycle being disrupted by human activities (e.g., fossil fuel combustion) and how can the cycle be re- balanced to mitigate Anthropogenic Climate Change (ACC) and its adverse effects?" Specifically, the project seeks to identify the most effective ways to move the public health system to adopt strategies aimed at reducing the carbon footprint on a population scale. As ACC continues, the effects on public health are anticipated to worsen: shortages of food and water are developing and will intensify; the extent and range of disease-carrying insect vectors will broaden; destruction of coastal areas through rising ocean levels and storm-surge flooding will affect millions; and intensified summer temperature extremes will threaten, directly and indirectly, millions more. The "twin" issue of peak oil, or the world's reaching the maximum rate of petroleum extraction, poses different risks than ACC does — depletion of energy resources amplifies all of the previously mentioned threats by limiting societies' ability to provide resources toward ACC mitigation. These issues all devolve back to the collective carbon footprint of U.S. citizens and are potentially solvable through society-wide behavior change. This project will begin with a descriptive survey of U.S. state and local health departments to assess their baseline understanding of the general concept of carbon footprint and its attendant problems as outlined above. Secondly, the experimental arm of the study will be a pilot intervention project. A "tool kit" of resources will be disseminated to facilitate health departments' engagement with citizens, the business community, and other governmental agencies with the aim of enhancing public cooperation in reducing the collective carbon footprint.

Project Status

Our first step has been hiring one undergraduate (Ms. Sana Syal, SENR) and one PhD student (Jonathan Lutz, CPH). Mr. Lutz has only recently begun receiving support from this project — he was on a HRSA for the first two quarters of this academic year. Ms. Syal has been assisting Dr. Wilson (Co-PI) in her development of baseline questionnaires for year 1 and the behavioral intervention that will be undertaken in year 2. She has also been working with Mr. Lutz in assembling a sampling frame of all state, local, and territorial health departments in the District of Columbia, the United States, and its territories (see below).

The project's year-1 aim of conducting a nationwide survey of health departments is in progress and the team has completed about 75% of the assembly of the sampling frame mentioned above. This is a painstaking task, requiring the search for health departments located in every county, city, and state in the union and its territories. We expect to populate the sampling frame with several thousand entries by the time we have finished. Until now, the only such frame was available from the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), at a cost of $1,000. Their sampling frame is available only for the effort for which fees were paid, and is incomplete. The assembly of this sampling frame represents the first valuable product to come out of this pilot project. The frame could be used by our group, and many others in our Colleges and elsewhere on campus. Additional licensing opportunities involving outside entities could provide a source of revenue.


J. Mac Crawford
Environmental Health Sciences
College of Public Health