Climate Changes Health: The Backstory is the Front Story

November 7, 2018 | 1:59 pm
Photo: FEMO
Natalie Sampson
Community-engaged researcher

12 years. That’s how long scientists say we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially to heed off the global catastrophic effects of climate change.  As such, climate change is arguably the greatest public health threat of our times as it already contributes to increased trauma, morbidity, and mortality from extreme weather events and displacement.

Climate justice is intersectional

Often missing from this conversation is a dialogue on climate justice. The term climate justice draws heavily on the environmental justice (EJ) movement and affirms that climate change is a scientific, political, and human rights issue. It defines climate change as a great multiplier, exacerbating existing health inequities among socially, economically, and politically vulnerable populations. And, per the Bali Principles of Climate Justice, the term also recognizes “the rights of communities dependent on natural resources for their livelihood and cultures to own and manage the same in a sustainable manner and is opposed to the commodification of nature and its resources.” Policies that overlook disproportionate impacts on low-income communities and communities of color—as well as inaction—are perpetuating climate injustice globally.

As Dr. P. Qasimah Boston at the Department of Children and Families in Tallahassee, Florida explains with regards to climate change, “The backstory is the FRONT story.” In other words, the stories of communities experiencing climate injustice cannot be the “backstory,” but must be recognized in mainstream conversations around climate change and health.

Coming together around solutions

In attempts to shift the narrative within public health and make climate justice the front story, over 115 EJ and scientific experts came together for a pre-conference summit at the 2017 American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting— Climate Changes Health: Ensuring Environmental Justice Underlies Public Health’s Climate Change Work.

While many scientists and public health professionals understand climate change’s disproportionate threats to health, this summit was meant to help prepare them to actually address climate justice in their research and practice in partnerships with communities and climate justice leaders already doing the work.

This report was compiled from thematic analysis of rich conversations between leaders in the room and reflects the combined insights of the group. Written for diverse audiences, it shares important recommendations and resources to advance public health’s capacity to address climate justice related to policy, youth involvement, the role of funders, and comprehensive suggestions for the field of public health.

What you can do

Review the recommendations in Climate Changes Health: Ensuring Environmental Justice Underlies Public Health’s Climate Change Work.

Scientists and public health and technical experts – use your position as a researcher, a member of an educational institution, a member of your community, and as a constituent to push forward climate justice by:

  • Working with communities to learn and offer your expertise where appropriate. UCS has a guide and several resources to help you think through how to do this in a meaningful way.
  • Talking to colleagues and people in your institution to bring diverse voices, including those from impacted communities, into the conversations and work around climate change.
  • Engaging with policymakers, offer your expertise, and voice your support for climate justice work that is centered in communities that are most affected.
  • Elevating the issues in the media to make climate justice a focal part of the climate change conversation

 Concerned members of the public – leverage your standing as a voter and concerned community member to work towards climate justice by connecting with a local justice-based community group and engaging with elected officials and the media.

This takes an all hands-on deck approach. It means centering our work in equity and supporting justice organizations and leaders. It means supporting the work of leaders of color. It means showing up and taking action.

As a community-engaged researcher, Natalie Sampson brings interdisciplinary evidence to climate change, land use, and infrastructure planning and policy efforts in Metro Detroit to address environmental health inequities. As an Assistant Professor at University of Michigan-Dearborn, she teaches courses in public health, health promotion, environmental health, and community organizing. Dr. Sampson co-chairs the American Public Health Association (APHA)’s Environmental Justice Committee with Charles Lee.

The UCS Science Network is an inclusive community of more than 25,000 scientists, engineers, economists, and other experts, focused on changing the world for the better. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the authors alone.