Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Climate change and health: 'No environmental justice without social justice'

Later this month in Paris, nearly 200 countries will convene for the 21st Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It’s being billed as one of the most important climate change meetings ever. However — if all goes as planned — it could also end up being an enormous leap for public health too.

At a Tuesday morning Annual Meeting session on “Connecting Climate Change and Health Policies: Prioritizing Necessary Actions to Protect Public Health,” presenter Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told attendees that the goal of the Paris conference is to establish binding agreements to limit global warming to 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. In fact, in the run-up to the Paris gathering, every country has been asked to provide their intended contributions to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, the U.S. intention is to reduce such emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. However, Ethiopia’s commitment is really setting the bar high — that country intends to reduce its emissions by 64 percent by 2030, Patz said.

The whole endeavor is a bit daunting, Patz admitted, and the real question is “how are we going to get there?” But Patz thinks there’s a “secret” to this puzzle and that secret is public health. In other words, if policymakers better understood the enormous health and economic co-benefits of combating climate change — such as preventing pollution-related mortality, illness, medical care and absenteeism — then deciding to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in earnest could transform from the daunting choice to the easy choice.

And there’s no shortage of health statistics to make Patz’s case. For instance, he reminded session attendees that 8 million people die prematurely every year due to air pollution and more than 3 million die from sedentary lifestyles. On the flip side, he cited research that found if Canada could achieve the same biking and walking rates as the Netherlands — which would also reduce vehicle emissions that contribute to climate change — the country would avoid 175,000 disability-adjusted life years, which measures the number of years lost to illness, disability and early death.

“This is the time — right now — that we can really change society and make some major benefits,” Patz said.

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is leading public health efforts to prepare for and adapt to the health effects of climate change. Session presenter George Luber, who leads CDC’s climate and health activities, noted that the health impacts of climate change — such as heat illness and food- and water-borne illness — will have a disproportionate impact on already vulnerable populations. He also noted that the cumulative impact of climate change will be substantial as well — he described it as “morbidity and mortality by a thousand cuts.”

Luber also noted that the threats climate change pose to human health aren’t necessarily new and novel. But what will be new and novel is where the threats occur and how intense and frequent they’ll be.

Right now, Luber reminded the audience, the CDC Climate and Health Program is the only federal investment in climate change preparedness in the public health sector. The agency is helping states and cities prepare for future health challenges, use climate science and modeling, develop decision-making and support tools, and much more. In particular, CDC has the developed the BRACE framework to assist public health agencies in developing effective preparedness strategies.

So, what does integrating climate and health policy look like at the community level? Kimberly Wasserman, organizing and strategy director at the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, told attendees of the group’s many victories that blend health and environmental justice. Little Village is a Chicago neighborhood of about 95,000 people within a five-mile radius — Wasserman said it’s often referred to as the Mexican capital of the Midwest. Among their biggest accomplishments was the closure of two of the nation’s oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants — one of the plants had been situated just a few hundred feet from Little Village, where residents suffer high rates of asthma and bronchitis. The organization, along with the Chicago Clean Power Coalition, pushed a local clean power ordinance and eventually, faced with pricey upgrades to its pollution controls, the power plants closed.

Other accomplishments Wasserman reported on included a new bus line where a three-mile gap in public transit had previously been, a quarter-acre community garden and an urban agriculture program. Little Village Environmental Justice Organization is in the middle of a new fight too: Unilever, the company that makes Hellmann’s mayonnaise, wants to expand its factory in Little Village, which means a huge jump in truck traffic and vehicle pollution right near a school. Wasserman and her colleagues are now working to ensure that children’s health doesn’t get left behind in the rush for new economic development.

“We never end this vicious cycle of environmental injustice in our community,” she said.

Wasserman told attendees that “as a community, our local economy is our strength.” As such, if the residents of Little Village aren’t intimately involved in local development decisions, “we’re going to be displaced and gentrified as a community,” she said.

“There can be no environmental justice without social justice,” Wasserman said.

Visit APHA for more resources on climate change and health, including our report, “Adaptation in Action: Grantee Success Stories from CDC’s Climate and Health Program." And watch an APHA TV interview with Patz on our YouTube channel.

— K.K.

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