In a week where smoke from widespread, West Coast wildfires is affecting air quality across the United States, compounding the challenge of managing a still-raging pandemic and the health disparities it has laid bare, it’s not hard to grasp the urgency for action on the dueling crises of climate, health, and equity in the US.
But what may be lost on many, experts speaking at a Fortune virtual event said on Wednesday morning, is that those problems and solutions are related—and should be conceived as such.
“Equity is at the center of every climate or health discussion,” said Surili Patel, a director of the Center for Climate, Health, and Equity at the American Public Health Association. “We’re talking not just about the distribution of power, but we’re talking about making sure every community has the ability to bounce back from a climate event.” She noted that with the ongoing wildfires, there are certain communities who can’t shelter in place or evacuate their neighborhoods to escape the polluted air.
“You look anywhere, the people most exposed to pollution are those who are most economically disadvantaged and often historically discriminated against,” says Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician who leads Harvard’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment. Bernstein notes that while further study is required, there is evidence that air pollution affects birth outcomes—babies are more like to be born pre-term or at low birth weights—and development. Very young children exposed to air pollution are more likely lifelong disabilities and mental health issues; it is also thought to play a role in diabetes and a host of other health problems.
He stressed the importance of making links between health issues and climate change to further drive home the importance and urgency of the latter: “What is critical to recognize here is that the solutions on the table for climate change—renewable energy, for example—these aren’t just solutions for carbon pollution, but solutions to health and equity solutions. In actions that address climate change, there are actions that can promote equity, actions that can help us forestall pandemics, and that can at some of the biggest disease burdens in the world.”
What can be done to bring about action? And what role should the private sector play?
Jane Burston, executive director of the Clean Air Fund, urged business leaders to be more vocal and public in their support of combating climate change and social and health inequities. “In a lot of countries around the world there’s a false narrative that you have to choose between economic development and clean air,” she said. “And that isn’t the case, and it needs to be businesses that explain that isn’t the case because they’re the trusted voices when it comes to the economy. Advocating for the economic benefits of cleaning the air is a biggie.”
She encouraged companies to be creative and thoughtful as to …read more