I see a double danger in climate change, poor health

Let’s unbox this.

First, it is clear that the climate is changing and global warming is affecting our health. Global temperatures have risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since pre-industrial times, causing more extreme weather events like floods, droughts and wildfires. In the United States, the last year was the second worst record for weather-related disasters, with 20 events resulting in the death of 688 people.

While climate-related disasters can affect anyone, low-income communities and people of color are the first and most affected. For example, black or African Americans are already more likely to live in neighborhoods at risk of flooding, and climate change is expected to make the situation worse.

Or consider extreme heat, the deadliest impact of climate change. Here in Georgia, we currently average about 20 dangerously hot days per year. But if climate change is not addressed, our state could experience more than 90 days of dangerous heat by 2050. In 2015, about 53 out of 100,000 people in Georgia died from heat-related illnesses. If the number of dangerous heat days more than quadrupled, we could also see a fourfold increase in deaths.

Here too, black and brown communities are the hardest hit. The rate of heat-related deaths among blacks is 150-200% higher than among whites in the United States. Hispanic and/or Latino people are also more vulnerable, as they are more likely to work in high-risk sectors like agriculture and construction. And lower-income neighborhoods are actually warmer — up to 20 degrees — than wealthier areas of the city, which typically have more cooling trees.

These climatic changes add to the collective tensions experienced by resource-poor communities. These communities have struggled for years to access clean air, nutritious food, clean drinking water and safe shelter. Extreme weather events are layered on top of everyday insults like pollution, lack of green space, poor water quality and infectious diseases that damage our health. Climate change is a health equity issue.

According to the CDC, health equity is “the state in which everyone has a fair and equitable opportunity to achieve their highest level of health. Achieving this requires targeted and ongoing societal efforts to address historical and contemporary injustices; overcoming economic, social and other barriers to health and health care; and eliminate avoidable health disparities.

The same inequalities we see in health care, resulting from inequitable access to education and economic opportunity, are all exacerbated by climate change. Climate change and health equity go hand in hand.

The new federal law, the Inflation Reduction Act, may actually address some of these concerns. By promoting clean and renewable energy, the law aims to reduce climate-altering carbon emissions and slow global warming. The law provides incentives for the purchase of electric vehicles and rooftop solar panels and will provide a serious boost to Georgia’s growing solar energy industry.

By reducing emissions and air pollution, this federal legislation will mean cleaner air and better health for the people of Georgia. Nevertheless, we must ensure that those hardest hit by climate change see the benefits of the new law. Supporting local Georgia legislation that would enact an environmental justice task force or commission to examine and address the disproportionate impact of environmental policies on people of color and resource-poor families is a key step.

Climate change is here and now. And people are doubly threatened by climate change and poor health. The good news is that climate solutions are also health solutions. Now we need to make sure these solutions reach those who need them most.

Tracey L. Henry, MD, MPH, MS is a Climate and Health Equity Fellow of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate Change and Associate Professor of Medicine at Emory University. The opinions here are his own and do not represent Emory University.

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