Dr. Marva King is a leading expert on and contributor to efforts to promote environmental justice in America. Karmjot Randhawa is the Research Translation Operations Manager at the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health.
The science is clear that climate change is happening and the health harms are real and felt across the country. Like all of the challenges facing our society, however, we need to be sure that we move forward in a way that is fair and just—and responds to the unique threats, challenges and strengths of different people and communities. That’s what equity is. Health equity is about responding to the susceptibility of low-income and communities of color—the most vulnerable communities in the nation—who are at higher risk than other groups due to where they work, play, live and go to school.
As many communities continue to implement innovative climate solutions, health equity often stands out as an important but complex consideration in these solutions. How can we find solutions that incorporate a history of inequity and meet the unique needs of everyone?
Here’s What We Know about the State of Inequities
The immediate health risks and significant health impacts of climate change are felt by all, but not equally across all communities. The impacts of climate change on health vary significantly based on the vulnerability and resilience of individuals and their communities. Three of the most critical components of climate change vulnerability are where you live, your pre-existing health conditions, and your living circumstances. In the United States, these factors are shaped by economics and the distribution of wealth, power, social policies and politics at the global, national, state and local levels. Compounding the challenge of responding to climate change in a way that keeps equity at its center is the fact the communities that are most affected by climate change are also often the same communities who lack the infrastructure and financial investment to drive climate solutions. For example:
- African Americans are more likely to live in neighborhoods with few trees and more heat-trapping pavement. The rate of heat-related deaths in African Americans is 150–200 percent greater than that for non-Hispanic Whites.
- Traditional Native Americans and Alaska Natives’ diets and subsistence hunting and fishing are at risk due to climate change.
- Over 1 million African Americans live in counties that face a cancer risk above EPA’s level of concern from toxins emitted by natural gas facilities. People living in fence-line communities near oil and gas drilling sites have higher risks for cancer, increased asthma attacks and other respiratory problems, and emerging evidence of higher rates of miscarriage or premature births, low-birth weight and challenges to brain development.
- Low-income individuals and people of color are more likely to live near busy roadways and face disproportionate impacts of motor vehicle pollution.
Our Charge as We Develop and Implement Equitable Solutions
Most researchers are aware that vulnerable communities face many challenges in implementing better environmental health solutions in their neighborhoods. These challenges include: building trust relationships between communities and potential partners; establishing an effective, financially-sound organization; understanding the links between the environment and health; understanding how to address climate challenges; navigating political power structures; and ensuring decisions are not made without the community residents’ involvement. Underlying these challenges are the economic poverty, racial disparity, and criminal justice burdens such communities face. It is essential to have a robust community engagement component in health and climate work to build out programs to overcome these challenges, and also to cultivate grant funds and funding opportunities for current and existing programs.
Over the last thirty years, there have been attempts made to address the challenges of health and climate equity across the nation. The most successful of these attempts have recognized the value of authentic community engagement, the importance of communities making their own decisions, and the value gained by working in partnership with others to achieve concrete and measurable success. However, collective impact initiatives cannot be piecemeal and short-term; they should serve as integral components of a long-term movement for sustainable, systemic change. This movement has been proven to create lasting success. Meaningfully reforming these systems requires engaging communities in partnerships with organizations from different sectors.
As we continue learning from previous attempts to facilitate and support organizations’ ability to develop and grow the skills, knowledge and tools in communities, we must steer a new path towards climate justice in our most vulnerable populations. At its core, inclusion must consist of authentic community engagement and ensuring that those most impacted by climate change are the decision-makers as we move our nation towards a healthier society for us all.
Researchers in the field recognize that when communities aren’t the decision-makers, efforts will likely fail to achieve their intended goals. J.A. Elrahman and J. Feldman put it well when they said, “When communities aren’t in the driving seat and in control of their change process, efforts will likely fail to achieve their intended impacts. Treat community members as producers and actors, rather than subjects or passive service recipients.” Such action and treatment of the people who are suffering the most is, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1961, the measure of our “salvation or damnation” as persons and as a nation.
For those who want to read more about best practices in community engagement in efforts to achieve equity, you can read more here:
- Linking Science and Policy Through Community-Based Participatory Research to Study and Address Health Disparities, by Meredith Minkler, DrPH, MPH in the American Journal of Public Health
- The final report of the World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health: Closing the gap in a generation: health equity through action on the social determinants of health
- A Path Towards Authentic Community Engagement by Jaylan Abd Elrahman and Jay Feldman