When in mid-September we witnessed smoke from the California wildfires blanket the air all across the country, turning blue skies a shade of apocalyptic orange, we were once again reminded that the climate crisis is manifesting in very visible and tangible ways. In addition to the horrific damage to natural environments and native land, the effect of the wildfires on air quality across the US during a respiratory pandemic was a great cause for concern. While we cannot ignore the impact that the climate crisis is having on ecosystems and wildlife, we would be wise to understand the dire consequences it is having on our own health.
By failing to frame the climate crisis as a health crisis, we are missing out on crucial opportunities for action. The separation of health and environmental policy is a dangerous mistake, as human health depends entirely on the climate and the natural world.
In the midst of a pandemic, this is awfully clear. Research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health demonstrates that those who live in places with a history of poor air quality are more likely to die from COVID-19, even when we account for other influential factors such as pre-existing medical conditions, socioeconomics, and access to healthcare.
Even without the added health stress of a respiratory pandemic, air pollution negatively impacts the health of the most vulnerable communities — particularly communities of color. Additionally, Black and Latinx folks in the US breathe in significantly more air pollution than they are responsible for producing — while white people are breathing in 17 percent less air pollution than they make.
In general, because of environmental injustices rooted in policy systems and corporations that profit off polluting the most underserved communities, people of color, in both the US and across the globe, are disproportionately impacted by environmental problems — and their collective health is suffering immensely.
Intersectional environmentalism, a term coined by Leah Thomas, is a form of environmentalism that accounts for both the struggles of people (particularly people of color) and the planet, reminds us that our efforts to address environmental problems and their deep interconnections with issues of health should also bring us to discussions of equity. We should not shy away from discussing how systems of oppression such as racism play a role in exacerbating environmental and health inequity.
While the health effects of the climate crisis are here today, they are not evenly distributed.
Exposure to the catastrophic consequences of climate change and other environmental crises has the potential to cause lifelong health issues such as asthma, hormone disruption, learning disorders, heart disease, cancer, and more. Additionally, the consequences of environmental racism, the likes of which the US observes in Flint, Michigan; Cancer Alley, Louisiana; and the Dakota Access Pipeline often spans for generations and further exacerbates existing health disparities.
Our collective observance of climate-related events like uncontrollable wildfires, intensified and more frequent hurricanes, and the exacerbation of natural disasters should signal to us the importance of climate action — but also the importance of creating systems of health equity which are actively counteracting the impact these issues have. Poor quality of care and impeded access to healthcare will only make these issues more difficult to deal with. Often, those who are most impacted by the climate crisis are also those most impacted by issues of health inequity.
By merging these two areas in our minds and in our actions, we can create a global community dedicated to tackling the climate crisis and related environmental problems with the same fervor as public health crises like the coronavirus. Additionally, we can work towards creating systems of health equity (for example, equitable systems of healthcare in the US) that will become increasingly valuable as the climate crisis worsens. Current and future doctors should be prepared with the knowledge and duty to activate the medical community and the patient community to stand up to the biggest public health crisis the world will ever face. People who wonder about the effects of the climate crisis on their daily life should be actively considering their health and wellbeing.
For centuries, indigenous communities have acknowledged the interconnectedness of the health of the earth and the health of her human inhabitants. It is time we take action with this acknowledgement in mind.
Learn more about taking action to dismantle systems of environmental and health inequity at www.avritah.org.