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In conversation with PLOS Climate authors

We spoke to the authors of two new PLOS Climate articles to learn more about their research and their motivation for choosing the journal as a venue for sharing their findings.


Mary Sheehan, co-author of “Urban climate-health governance: Charting the role of public health in global city adaptation plans

Buenos Aires, Argentina. Image credit: HalloweenHJB, Pixabay.

What made you decide to investigate this issue? 

Cities have stepped forward in a major way on climate change, both to reduce CO2 emissions and increasingly on adaptation planning. This makes sense because it’s at the local level where impacts of climate hazards are felt. In previous research we were struck by a paradox– that although city climate adaptation plans aim to protect people, local public health agencies seemed often to be on the sidelines of those plans. This is odd because local public health agencies have critical data and know-how. For example, relationships between climate hazards and health risks, or factors that make populations particularly vulnerable, or risk communication strategies. In other words, health agencies are really essential– to ensure climate adaptation is targeted to people who need it most, to help reduce inequalities, and to succeed in the goal of protecting people. So, with this study we wanted to focus in on public health agencies’ involvement in climate adaptation plans in a group of cities where their role was likely to be fairly visible.  

How did you go about your analysis? 

We chose a group of large cities that reported adaptation activities in areas we are pretty sure help protect health, and where health data and expertise is likely important. Those areas are hazard and vulnerability mapping, heat early warning, other early warnings such as for floods, extreme weather preparedness, and climate health surveillance. To choose cities, we used a large global dataset on adaptation maintained in association with several global city climate networks. We identified several dozen cities that fit our initial criteria and then searched the internet for their most recent climate adaptation plans. We didn’t find all cities we were looking for; in particular, cities in low- and middle-income countries were under-represented. But we found plans for 22 cities– six in low-and middle-income and 16 in high-income countries (14 countries in all). Then, among our team of six researchers, we shared responsibility for reading the plans, and extracting data on the five activities according to a pre-determined, standardized set of questions– including whether city public health agencies were engaged, what their role was, and which other local partner agencies were also involved. 

What were your key findings? 

We found that even among these 22 cities chosen for strong health focus in climate adaptation planning, public health agency engagement was limited. Less than three-quarters of cities reported a public health agency on the climate plan team. And the percentages were lower for specific activity areas: for example, just 59% of cities in the case of heat early warning, 45% in the case of preparedness, and 41% in the case of hazard mapping. So, we see a big opportunity here for more public health engagement in city climate plans to ensure adaptation is well-targeted. We also found much adaptation to protect people involved agencies besides public health– e.g., weather services, emergency management departments, electric utilities, etc. So, promoting collaboration across these agencies is also likely important. Interestingly, we found that cities in low- and middle-income countries reported more public health agency engagement in their climate plans than those in high-income countries. We have some hypotheses about why – for example, higher infectious disease burdens due to poorer water and sanitation services. But since our sample size was small, we could not really draw conclusions. We are now working on larger study with more cities in low- and middle-income countries, hoping to shed some light on that question.

Who could act on these findings, and how? 

Our recommendations are mainly for city policy makers– first, that city agencies that coordinate climate adaptation plans– e.g. mayor’s offices, city councils, environment agencies– systematically reach out to public health in order to make optimum use of their data and expertise. Washington DC is an example where the adaptation plan was driven by the city’s department of energy and environment, but public health was sought out to lead initiatives including heat and flood vulnerability outreach, and also worked in partnership with local emergency management on setting up extreme weather preparedness hubs. Second, that public health agencies themselves enhance their impact by proactively engaging with climate adaptation planning– in particular, regarding risks from extreme heat and floods, which we found to be common hazards across cities. An example is Barcelona, where the public health agency used its heat-vulnerability mapping to reach out to help the city parks and recreation department identify areas for cooling interventions like greening and water fountains. In addition, we highlight the particular need for greater research, policy and practice focus on adaptation in low- and middle-income countries.  

Why did you choose PLOS Climate as a venue for your work? 

PLOS Climate is an exciting addition to climate science and policy journals. With its background in providing an “Open Science” open-access format, PLOS has enormous credibility for widely disseminating high-quality science findings and making them accessible to policy makers. The focus of PLOS Climate on bringing perspectives from less well-represented areas and fields made the journal a natural choice for us for this study on the role of public health in global city climate adaptation planning.  Until comparatively recently, public health has not received the attention of some other sectors in the context of climate change policy; PLOS Climate is a welcome forum to provide insights into less well-covered fields.   In addition, since health – like climate change itself – is an inherently cross-disciplinary field, we were also drawn to the opportunity to share our findings with readers across a wide range of climate disciplines — including some working in city agencies for whom our recommendations may be helpful.  We have been really pleased with the collaboration with PLOS Climate on the publication of this paper. 


Mary Hunsicker & Eric Ward, co-authors of “Tracking and forecasting community responses to climate perturbations in the California Current Ecosystem

Common Murre. Image credit: 12019, Pixabay.

Could you tell us about the background and motivation for your study?

The motivation for this work was an unprecedented marine heatwave that occurred in the northeast Pacific Ocean between 2014-2016. This heatwave, also known as the ‘warm blob’, resulted in anomalously warm ocean temperatures in ecosystems from Alaska to California. Scientists were documenting numerous biological responses to the heatwave and there was a lot of interest in how the responses might affect the structure and functioning of the northeast Pacific ecosystems. There was also interest in knowing whether the biological response to warm ocean conditions would result in a shift to a new ecosystem state. In light of this, my colleagues and I thought it could be really useful to develop a tool or set of tools that would allow us track and detect changes in ecosystem state in response to climate perturbations, such as the marine heatwave.

What approaches did you use to tackle your research question?

Many of the indicators that we currently use to assess the status of ecosystem conditions on the U.S. west coast are based on individual taxa. However, our thinking was that a community or ecosystem state index, that summarizes information across taxa and life stages that are known to respond quickly to environmental perturbations, might provide the earliest possible detection of an ecosystem shifting into a novel state. We used a Bayesian implementation of Dynamic Factor Analysis (developed by co-authors Eric Ward and Sean Anderson) and Hidden Markov Models to develop a community state index for the California Current Ecosystem (CCE) and to identify whether there was evidence of regime shifts in the community state. We also tested whether we had any skill in forecasting community state one year advance based on future ocean conditions.

What did you find?

We found that there was a large community response to the marine heatwave and there was strong coherence in the response among the various taxa. However, we also found that the response was not outside the normal range variability when we compared it to past climate perturbations in the CCE, and there was no evidence of community state shift following the marine heatwave. In addition, we demonstrated that we have skill in forecasting the state index one year ahead based on ocean conditions. As additional data is included in future forecasts, we expect forecast skill to improve.

Could the methods you used be applied in different contexts?

Yes, definitely. This approach can be used in studies where there is an interest in identifying shared temporal patterns or ‘trends’ of variability in multivariate time series. We applied a similar approach to the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem (Litzow et al. 2020 [not Open Access]) and are extending our analyses to other ecosystems in the northeast Pacific Ocean as well. We encourage readers to check out our ‘bayesDFA’ R package if they are interested in applying this approach to their own study systems. We anticipate many other applications of this work around the world, including marine, freshwater, and terrestrial ecosystems.

Why did you choose PLOS Climate as a venue for your work?
We wanted to publish our work in a multi-disciplinary journal that has a strong focus on climate research and that supports Open Science. PLOS Climate was a perfect fit.

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