A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Georges Benjamin: If we want to rebuild public health stronger, out planet can no longer be sidelined

The COVID-19 pandemic brought our public health infrastructure to its knees. As we enter a slow period of recovery, now is not the time to ignore the potential that climate change has of bringing it to full collapse.

Our planet is changing before our very eyes.

The use of fossil fuels and our world’s expanding carbon footprint are not only contributing to changing weather patterns, stronger heatwaves and more frequent natural disasters, but also the declining mental and physical health of Americans. The prolonged consequences of a changing climate include anxiety, depression and increased rates of substance abuse and suicide. The data is even more grim among younger populations, with fossil fuel emissions linked to the deaths of thousands of children each year.

Numerous studies find a correlation between children developing respiratory conditions, such as asthma, and living within close proximity to coal-fired power plants — which are most commonly located in low-income neighborhoods populated by people of color. Race, in fact, is the number one indicator of where toxic facilities are located in the U.S.

Disparities like these are also reflected in contaminated drinking water in high-poverty areas, either produced by chemical runoff or the use of lead pipes. As underscored by Hurricane Katrina and more recent disasters, many people of color who live in disadvantaged areas are less able to recover from widespread devastation, given their difficulties in accessing economic resources and other services aimed to help rebuild their lives.

Extreme heat and volatile weather events also increase the proliferation of vector-borne illnesses and heat-related conditions, such as the West Nile virus, as well as heatstroke and heart attacks, which that Black Americans are already predisposed to.

With the average U.S. life expectancy falling and the worst pandemic in a century, we cannot afford to leave the ground fertile for another public health crisis that can still be reversed. If we fail to act now, climate change can disrupt our economy, our livelihoods and life as we know it more indefinitely than COVID-19, and that upheaval will be much worse for vulnerable populations.

This week, as we reflect upon the half-century tradition of Earth Day and question how we can become better stewards to our planet, it is time to start the tradition of how we can become better stewards to health equity.

With the Biden administration taking steps to eliminate the environmental disparities that hinder health equity in historically neglected communities, I’m calling on my fellow health officials at every level to join in the pledge of recognizing the urgency of our climate’s health.

We’ve dedicated our careers to bolstering and celebrating public health for a reason. We each have but one life to live, and the quality of that life is closely tied to the fate of the one planet we have to live on.

Georges C. Benjamin, MD, is the executive director of the American Public Health Association, the nation’s oldest and largest organization of public health professionals and a former secretary of health for the state of Maryland.climate change,

Related Posts

Leave a Comment