Why fighting climate change is key to America’s health

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.

Air pollution, which the WHO says contributes to 7 million deaths each year, has also been linked in preliminary studies to worse COVID-19 outcomes.

“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 how they use their business assets to support the cause. She notes that Google does pollution monitoring and that IKEA has started buying up crop stubble, which is typically burned and a major source of pollution in India, to turn into products.

 “If we have the right incentives in place, we’re not going to fail for lack of ingenuity,” said Bernstein. “What we really need is a price on carbon. Without that we don’t have the incentives to accelerate change at the pace we need.” He noted that as a society, we’re already paying a price for carbon in terms of its health impacts. (Earlier today, the Business Roundtable called for a price on carbon.)

He called on American companies to unleash their lobbying power to make the case to Congress that action on climate is good for all: “Corporations need to step up and bust the myth that economic prosperity and a thriving private sector or incompatible with being socially responsible.” He argued out that as much of the world moves forward with green technology and the Paris Climate Agreement agenda, U.S. businesses will become less competitive. “There’s a great opportunity for businesses to lead here.”

Biogen, the Boston-based biotech, is working hard to engage its employees on the intertwined issues of climate, health, and equity. CEO Michel Vounatsos noted the company, which has been carbon neutral since 2014, has set targets and created an employee resource network to engage workers in thinking more carefully about personal and professional behaviors—how they drive, how they heat their homes, how they work in the office.  He said the response has been enthusiastic.

“We need to have the courage to set metrics,” said Vounatsos. “Talking without measurement is wishful thinking.”

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