Michael W. Painter is a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and is a physician, attorney and health policy advocate. Priya Gandhi is a Research Associate at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Most of us read the expert reports warning of impending climate danger, slack-jawed and alarmed. Yes, we’re concerned, yet if we’re honest most of us are relatively passive given the enormity of the challenge. But what about those who aren’t passive? What does it look like when a community decides to take climate change head-on? And, what could an effective solution mean for the health of people and the planet?
In April of this year several of us working on a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation health and climate solutions initiative fanned out across the United States to visit and learn from community leaders who are not, in fact, waiting around for help to arrive. One of our teams, for instance, drove an hour outside of Minneapolis to a small town in rural Minnesota. The cold, blowing rain started in earnest right as our team pulled up to the first farm. We initially met with our hosts, sheltering in a dimly lit barn but later toured numerous fields with fledgling spring crop growth in the driving wind and rain. That meeting helped us understand in really tangible, tactile ways the potential of an approach to agriculture called regenerative farming, which aims to re-invigorate depleted soil, improve biodiversity and protect watersheds.
How might this approach strengthen community health by improving food quality, access and people’s relationship with their food—all while creating an enormous, untapped reservoir to capture carbon and hold it in revitalized soil? Our hosts noted how regenerative community farming efforts often focus on small plots that in turn help families using the plots, improve the quality of the food they eat. Those families are, by the way, disproportionately headed by women and immigrants, which is a way regenerative farming can also advance equity.
That Minnesota effort was just one of many examples we encountered: inspiring community leaders across the United States taking charge, re-thinking how to turn the health challenges of climate change into opportunities to improve the health of their communities and doing it in ways that are fair and just.
We have a lot to learn, if we’re willing to listen.
At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, here’s what we know:
Climate change is a major threat to any vision of a healthy future. Our rapidly warming planet is changing our air, water, food and weather, which is harming human health. We know that human health and the health of our climate are intertwined. We know that climate change is harming our health here and now. And, critically, we know that while everyone is impacted, climate change magnifies the inequities that prevent all people from having a fair opportunity to live a healthier life.
We set out on this learning journey with our partners from George Mason University with a goal both ambitious and critical: find existing and innovative work in communities where people were coming together, developing interesting approaches to improve health, focus on health equity and, simultaneously, address climate change.
Our time in communities as varied as rural indigenous Alaska, urban Austin or Portland, OR and parts of the Navajo reservation vividly demonstrated that climate change is impacting human health in far-reaching ways. We saw the harms of climate change impacting people’s behavior, the way they plan ahead for food and water, and the way they manage their families. This story is already about our well-being because every part of our lives is impacted by our climate.
We also observed lots of creative energy. The solutions we saw were encouraging and the overwhelming interest in our funding offering—nearly 200 communities initially responded to our call for proposals that was fairly specific and narrowly focused—demonstrated to us how much work people in communities are generating to address these issues. We were inspired by the robust, imaginative and energetic ways communities across the United States are addressing climate change and its health harms. We saw people focused on things like food and food quality, green space in cities and access to clean and safe water. We saw solutions, including in agriculture, that allow people to continue their way of life and economies while responding to the threats and, importantly, building opportunities for health.
A healthier, more equitable future is our north star at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. On this journey, we saw communities that often bear the greatest burden on health and well-being from climate change putting forward solutions that tapped into their strengths and traditions. We know that where you live or work, your age, if you have pre-existing health conditions or chronic illness, and your race or income all influence how much climate change harms health. We witnessed solutions that didn’t just respond to inequities; we saw solutions that draw on the strength of indigenous communities or existing agricultural approaches to create something much better.
Working at the intersection of health and climate change can, at times, feel overwhelming and be disheartening. It can feel like we’re not doing enough, no one is listening or we’re too late. We cannot, however, lose hope. As we saw, people in communities across the United States are not losing hope; they’re moving forward with new ideas. We can learn about that courage from them and much more.
Here’s the good news headline: The breadth and creativity of the health, equity and climate change work happening in communities around the country are promising and galvanizing. Our humble goal at RWJF is to help find these solutions, share the learning urgently and broadly and ultimately play a part in building the evidence for solutions that may just work.