Climate Health Disparities & Solutions

On Thursday, October 22 the conversation from the Environmental Justice Training Program shifted from a history and framework for environmental justice to the connection between environmental health disparities and climate change. Our speaker was Rebecca Rehr, Director of the Climate for Health Program for ecoAmerica, where she works to build public support and political will for climate solutions. She previously worked in state-level environmental health advocacy, managing a portfolio that included pesticide use, lead poisoning, and fracking, while facilitating multidisciplinary collaboratives on environmental justice.

The following are key take-aways from Rebecca’s talk.

Environmental Health Disparities, COVID-19, and Climate Change

  • There is a cycle to environmental health disparities and it starts with home – that is, the types of housing available and where the housing is located. The location of that housing determines exposure to environmental toxins, and exposure to toxins, like air pollution and lead, leads to health conditions like asthma, allergies, cardiovascular disease, and pregnancy vulnerabilities, including low birth weight. Communities that face increased exposure to toxins are less likely to have access to health care services and have limited education and economic opportunities to break that cycle.  
  • The cycle of environmental health disparities is the very definition of cumulative impacts. Cumulative impacts is the combination of exposure to pollution, health effects and environmental effects multiplied by socioeconomic factors and factors that make you  more vulnerable like age, income, language proficiency, and access to care. 
  • Rebecca highlighted that environmental policy is not made to address cumulative impacts. Chemicals are regulated one at a time. Factories are regulated one at a time. But if you take a deep breath, you are exposed to more than one source at a time. Exposure occurs over a lifetime and leads to increased rates of disease. 
  • The COVID-19 pandemic revealed health disparities that already existed. Vernice Miller-Travis, an environmental justice advocate, uses the term syndemic in her work to describe what is happening now. The term syndemic comes from AIDs research and was used to understand the AIDs epidemic and the bias and discrimination against gay people and black people within and outside the health care system. AIDs research showed that a combination of risk factors determined who was suffering, and this is what is being seen with Covid-19. Several studies are showing risk factors for Covid-19 are overlapping with socio-economic, racial and environmental factors.
  • Rising temperatures, levels of carbon dioxide and more extreme weather are the signs of a changing climate but they are also impacting human health. For example, rising temperatures cause extreme heat and extreme heat causes heat-related illnesses and death and cardiovascular failure. 
  • The main drivers of climate change and main opportunities for climate solutions in the US are transportation (29%), electricity (28%), industry (22%), commercial and residential (12%), and agriculture (9%).
  • The populations who are most vulnerable to climate change are black and brown communities, the elderly, people with disabilities and children. These are also the populations that are the least responsible for the increase in greenhouse gas emissions. The costs of inaction are in the billions of dollars and people are being hurt. 

Climate Solutions

  • The solutions are in the same key areas as the drivers of climate change: clean and green energy, energy efficiency, efficient transportation, climate policy, investment in our natural environment (eg. retaining our forests, planting trees), and changes in personal behavior. 
  • Equity is part of the climate solution and investment in human capital will be an important component of a climate solution. 
    • Climate justice is racial justice. For perspective, listen to Rachel Rehr’s interview with Vernice Miller-Travis here.
    • Gender equity
      • In Drawdown, Hawkens argues that educating women and girls is one of the most effective solutions for climate change. Education and environmental education encourages women and girls to be stewards of food, soil, trees, and water. 
      • “Simply put: Climate change is the most significant public health challenge in the world today. We can reframe climate solutions as opportunities to invest in public health, which will make our world healthier and more just today while we forge a future we can be proud to hand to our children. We’ll see immediate benefits like fewer asthma and allergy attacks, safer and more resilient communities, more green spaces for outdoor activities, and fewer traumatic experiences that lead to mental and physical health problems. We’ll support communities that have been left behind, communities that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. And if history is any guide, women will be the ones who make it a reality.” – Gina McCarthy, All We Can Save
    • Intergenerational justice 
      • Children’s health and future are being impacted significantly by climate change, and youth activism is having a positive impact on the emotions of the American public.   
  • The definition of justice is addressing inequities based on what communities need and ensuring they have what they need to live a healthy and productive life. By investing in and addressing these opportunity gaps, we will create a more just and equitable future.

Where do we go from here?

Education is the first key step but we can’t stop there. We need to combine education with advocacy to be a part of the solution. Join the conversation with members of an inter-faith community and plan to attend our next speaker presentation on November 5 with Brooke Harper of and her talk on Advocacy in Action. RSVP here. Stay informed about the goals of environmental health, public health, and environmental justice by signing up for email updates from the Maryland Campaign for Environmental Human Rights here.

The Faith-Based Environmental Justice Training Program is a 5-week virtual training program to bring together communities of faith to learn about environmental justice, climate justice, and how to apply this learning in advocating for change at a local and state level in Maryland. This program is a collaboration of the Maryland Campaign for Environmental Human Rights (MDEHR), the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council, and its members including GreenGrace (Maryland Episcopal Environmental Partners) and the DE-MD (ELCA) Lutheran Synod. RSVP here to join the conversation live. A recording of Rebecca’s talk and Q&A session is available here. You can view Rebecca’s slides here.