Climate change is a health emergency. Let's act like it

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Op-Ed Was Originally Published February 10, 2019 In The Sacramento Bee

Health professionals are cheering California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “California for All” vision.

Newsom’s early actions to expand health care access and prioritize housing, jobs and income security and early childhood education — the “social determinants of health” — are vital strategies to reduce persistent and unacceptable health inequities across the state.

But climate change threatens to undermine even the best efforts to achieve health for all. Climate change is a health emergency. It’s impacting our health now and acts as a threat multiplier to exacerbate the state’s many social and health equity challenges.

Thousands of Californians have died from heat-related illness, lost homes due to wildfires and landslides, and lost their jobs or their drinking water due to drought. Tens of thousands of people experience worsening asthma and heart disease as a result of wildfire smoke or heat-driven increases in air pollution.

In addition, many California communities already suffer the highest air pollution burden in the nation. Low-income communities and people of color are the most impacted.

These challenges require urgent attention, but our health systems are poorly equipped to address this existential threat to our health and well-being.

The good news is that climate action offers exceptional opportunities to advance health, protect Californians from the catastrophic impacts of climate change and redress health inequities. That’s why dozens of California’s leading public health, health care, and community-based health organizations have released a “California Call for Action on Climate, Health, and Equity.”

In a public letter delivered to Gov. Newsom, we’re calling for climate action to protect public health.

What is climate action for health?

It includes supporting zero-emission vehicle technologies for transit and school buses, delivery trucks, and other vehicles to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gases. It is reducing fossil fuel extraction in California — and protecting frontline communities from the current impacts of extraction — to prevent greater harms to our children.

It’s better alignment of transportation investments with climate and health goals to significantly reduce many of the chronic illnesses that now drive health care costs. It’s helping children learn to enjoy plant-based diets by offering meat-free options in school lunches.

We also need health action for climate. This means a coordinated public campaign to provide Californians with the information they need to protect against climate health harms. Health care facilities need guidance and support to implement practices that reduce climate pollution and ensure the ability to function during climate-related disasters. And local health departments need increased workforce capacity and resources to protect public health in the era of climate change.

Climate and health action will be most effective when those most impacted have the voice, power and capacity to be full partners in building a healthy and climate-resilient future, with meaningful roles and power in decision-making processes.

All Californians — including those in future generations — have the right to the environmental, economic and social resources needed to live healthy and productive lives. This will require the governor and Legislature to assure that California’s investments and policies are carefully constructed to simultaneously tackle climate change, health and equity.

Climate change is a health emergency. It must be treated as such to assure that California has an opportunity to achieve “healthy people in healthy places on a healthy planet.”

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