The Health of the People and the Health of the Planet are One and the Same
A recent interview with a Kaiser Permanente’s Environmental Stewardship Officer, Ms. Kathy Gerwig, has grabbed the attention of several environmental and health blogs (grist; thinkprogress). Last week, Ms. Gerwig told Andrew Winston that Kaiser was working to reduce its pollution and become more sustainable not just to save money but to also save lives.
Ms. Gerwig pointed out that there were four areas of health that will be impacted by impending climate change:
But something was lacking in the articles that I read about Kaiser. None of these articles pointed out that many of the factors Ms. Gerwig mentioned can and already impact people in the city Kaiser is headquartered in-- Oakland. This wasn’t enough context for a boy born and raised here.
So, let’s tackle how the four major health areas Ms. Gerwig noted can and do impact our city.
Severe weather: Hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and heat waves all injure and kill people. Hospitals — and all businesses for that matter — need to prepare for these extremes.
All of these “natural disasters” are especially troubling here in Oakland. Heat waves negatively impact the poor and the elderly the most. They are usually groups that cannot afford air conditioning, live in homes that are not well-ventilated, and can’t drive to cooler areas like the coast.
Wildfires, when hasn’t that been a concern here after the Oakland Hill’s Fire?
Flooding is most alarming for me. The majority of Oakland’s non-white population lives in the areas that will be hit hardest by a storm surge and rising sea levels, the flatlands. We’ve seen how bad that went and is still going for New Orleans. (Prof. Clyde Woods has written some of the sharpest analysis on Hurricane Katrina in my opinion.)
Respiratory diseases: Air quality in general deeply affects health. This is mainly about the short-term consequences of not dealing with burning fossil fuels and the changing climate.
Respiratory diseases already disproportionately affect this city. Youth in West Oakland have four times the asthma rate of the rest of the city and are 7 times more likely to be hospitalized for respiratory illness than any other kids in California. 37% of adults and 20% of kids in West Oakland have asthma. Communities of color and neighborhoods that suffer from structural health barriers like being located between major freeways or industrial zones suffer from high rates of air pollution. These pollutants cause health problems like asthma, tuberculosis, and lung disease.
Infectious diseases: As the planet warms, bugs like mosquitoes can survive and thrive further north, spreading diseases to new areas. According to the UN, previously untouched areas like the southern U.S. and Mexico will face malaria, yellow fever, and dengue by 2050.
The southern U.S. is where the majority of the Black and Latino population of this nation live. This is where the highest percent of undocumented immigrants lives. While Oakland isn’t in this danger zone, I bet most of us have family and friends who live in these areas. I do.
The "what we don't know" bucket: While the science is clear that climate change is a serious problem, we still don't know a lot about how it will play out (this is not the same as saying the science is so uncertain that we shouldn't do something). "What we know so far about the repercussions of climate change isn't good," Gerwig says, "such as water shortages and increased wars over resources, and all the health issues that go along with those."
This is the issue that troubles me most: what will humans do? Resource shortages have almost always led to conflicts whether here in the U.S. or abroad.
It’s good to hear Ms. Gerwig point out the connection between climate change and health. Many of us already know that our neighborhoods are suffering form these problems. Now that Kaiser Permanente is voicing these concerns we’ll see them play a bigger role in finding some solutions we can all thrive from.
Do you know of any other ways climate change is directly impacting your neighborhood’s health right now? Please share in the comments below.
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