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Climate Change, Health & Equity

23rd September 2021 Natalie Burg 5 min read

Last month, UNICEF reported that one billion children live in countries at extremely high risk for the negative impacts of climate change. A recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency analysis showed that climate impacts disproportionately harm socially vulnerable populations.

Johnson & Johnson CSO Paulette Frank opened the Climate Week NYC session, "Climate Change, Health & Equity" with this data. These findings, she explained, underscore the urgent and growing need to address the health and equity impacts of climate change.

We have to center vulnerable populations in our efforts to mitigate climate change

"As we meet throughout the week to discuss our shared role in combating the worst effects of climate change," Frank said, "let's keep in mind the people who aren't here with us, those most vulnerable, who are counting on us to be their voices this week, and beyond."

Those populations were at the center of the discussion. Topics included the medical community's role in supporting marginalized people, a health and equity fellowship program for physicians of color and the work of policy leaders and NGOs in addressing climate-related equity issues.

The medical community will play a crucial role in climate equity

Dr. Cheryl Holder, associate dean of diversity, equity, inclusivity and community initiatives at Florida International University's Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, recalled a patient coming to her with asthma issues. Holder realized the woman's air conditioning couldn't maintain a cool environment with hotter-than-usual nights, nor could the patient keep up with her electric bill. Her asthma flare-up resulted from both extreme heat and poverty.

Another patient sustained damage to his kidneys while working outdoors in extreme heat. As an undocumented worker, he had no workplace protections.

"It's real, it's happening now, and, unfortunately, it's happening to those who are most vulnerable," Holder said. "And in our world right now, that is primarily Black and brown people."

It’s time to identify and address the most critical impacts

Holder sees four primary areas of concern for the medical community around climate change impacts:

  • Mental health
  • Physical health
  • Disrupted access to food and water
  • Increasing vector-borne disease threats from migrating insects

Medical professionals can take proactive steps to heal on multiple levels

Holder believes physicians have a proactive role to play in addressing the inequitable health impacts of climate change. She helped form Florida Clinicians for Climate Action, which educates and engages clinicians in advocating for climate action.

"We have to do the research; we have to change our curriculum," Holder said. "We have to alert the politicians; we have to alert everyone on the day-to-day impact that this is having."

A new climate and health equity fellowship is announced

In an effort to empower more physicians to do exactly that, Johnson & Johnson partnered with the Medical Society Consortium for Climate and Health. The partnership aims to raise awareness across professional medical communities on how climate change impacts specific patient populations. Last year, the National Medical Association joined the partnership, and the group created fellowships for physicians of color focused on climate and health equity.

"These physicians are breaking new ground on the role of medical professionals and caring for our planet," said Frank. "They're working on a range of projects that include advocating for climate-friendly policies, educating and informing their peers within their profession, working with patients who are most at risk of climate-related health impacts and driving sustainability initiatives within medical systems."

Governments and NGOs must direct resources toward climate equity

The session concluded with a panel led by Sonali Sharma, senior director of sustainability and engagement with Johnson & Johnson. The discussion focused on what cities and NGOs are doing to combat the disproportionate impact of climate change on underserved members of their communities.

City of Los Angeles Air Quality Advisor Irene Burga shared how a C40 Cities sponsorship from Johnson & Johnson made a significant difference for the municipality. Prior to receiving the funding, the city relied on regional or state agencies to address air quality impacts on community health. With its C40 Cities sponsorship, LA was able to establish health benefits analyses for some of the key targets of the city's Green New Deal plan. The plan includes transition to 100% zero-emission vehicles, 100% building electrification and an 80% reduction in industrial emissions by 2050.

Policy changes and community-focused initiatives produce outcomes everyone can celebrate

That analysis yielded stark proof of the urgency of green policies. "We found that those actions alone will reduce mortality by close to 2,000 people per year, will avoid significant amounts of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and also the city will save billions of dollars," said Burga.

Los Angeles has also launched a Climate Emergency Mobilization Office, which addresses environmental justice issues with a participatory model of governance. To ensure inclusion, this organization has established listening and feedback sessions with underserved communities.

Boston organization focuses investment on equity

The Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation has long examined the disparate impacts environmental challenges have on marginalized communities. The organization's Healthy Neighborhoods Equity Fund brings new sources of capital to mixed-use and mixed-income real estate projects. CLF's Director of Environmental Planning, Deanna Moran, said the effort catalyzes the creation of healthier, more environmentally sustainable neighborhoods.

Uplifting one struggling city will generate pathways for many more

Leveraging a grant from a Robert Wood Johnson initiative to address health, equity and climate change, CLF brought its approach to Lawrence, Massachusetts. The majority-minority city is at once low-income and home to a high concentration of current and former brownfield sites. It also experiences disproportionately high disease and mortality rates. The grant is helping CLF determine how and where to create active corridors that are safer and more comfortable for people to walk and bike or take public transportation.

"We're tying all of that together with some strategies to leverage the natural systems in Lawrence to address one of the things that residents are increasingly concerned about, which is climate-induced extreme heat," explained Moran.

Trusted community partners can make all the difference

To engage Lawrence residents, CLF has partnered with a community organization that has worked in the city for decades. While the community organization leverages its connections to build trust and facilitate engagement, CLF brings its technical expertise and guidance to the partnership.

"That combination has been really effective," Moran said. "We would love to see that kind of model be exported elsewhere in our region and outside of it."

The integral links between justice for the earth and justice for its inhabitants are increasingly clear

While medical leaders like Holder and organizations like CLF have long worked to bring attention to the connections between health, equity and climate change, participants in the Climate Week NYC session believe public awareness is increasing.

"We're starting to see a real shift," Moran said. "People are trying to understand you really can't disentangle health from environment."

To view the video in full, visit Climate Week NYC 2021 Facebook Watch.