Climate Change, Pandemics, and the Quest for Environmental and Social Justice
SAKETH SUNDAR, Harvard College '27
THURJ Volume 14 | Issue 1
Heat waves, wildfires, and unprecedented hurricanes. Never more than in the past year has our world grap- pled with the unprecedented challenges induced by the modern climate crisis. The extensive consequences of a progressively warming planet have not only affected our economies and ecosystems but have also profoundly impacted individual and global health. Climate change, as an increasingly imminent threat, has triggered a se- ries of interconnected health concerns that are becom- ing ever more challenging to address as the crisis con- tinues. These issues of global health require expedient action to minimize the risks of disease, disability, and death caused by our changing world.
Direct Effects of Climate Change on Health
Climate change manifests its influence on health through various direct pathways, with one significant aspect being the escalation of extreme weather events, including heatwaves, storms, and flooding, all of which are directly linked to the shifting climate. These weather extremes have both immediate and long-term health implications (Ebi et al., 2021). For instance, heatwaves can lead to heat-related illnesses and fatalities, particularly among vulnerable populations such as the elderly and individuals with preexisting health conditions (Arsad et al., 2022). Such extreme weather events often force the mass migration of populations, which exposes people to risks of disease, malnutrition, or violence. Moreover, extreme weather events like wildfires and hurricanes release high amounts of pollutants, displacing communities and inducing pollution-associated health problems (Ebi et al., 2021). Immense psychological toll of extreme weather events on affected communities, often characterized by anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and depression, which highlights the broader impact on community mental health (Makwana, 2019).
Additionally, climate change impacts air quality through multiple means, significantly affecting individual and public health. Increased concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gasses raise global temperatures, worsening air pollution by creating ground-level ozone and particulate matter, which harm respiratory and cardiovascular health (Rice et al., 2014). Prolonged exposure to poor air quality has been linked to asthma, bronchitis, heart disease, and premature death (Jiang et al., 2016).
In addition to these direct effects, climate change plays a significant role in the spread of infectious diseases. Global warming significantly impacts the dissemination and intensity of various diseases by modifying the geographical distribution, behavior, and temporal patterns of living disease vectors, including mosquitoes, ticks, and agricultural animals (Campbell-Lendrum et al., 2015). The escalation in global temperatures has broadened the habitat range of these vectors, consequently facilitating the transmission of diseases such as
malaria, dengue fever, and Lyme disease across international borders and into regions where they were previously infrequently encountered. Furthermore, the prolonged warm seasons induced by climate change foster more conducive circumstances for disease transmission by increasing the range of time in which vectors can thrive, thereby amplifying the prevalence and spread of outbreaks (Caminade et al., 2019).
Furthermore, environmental factors have been instrumental in shaping the dynamics and outcomes of pan- demics. A pertinent example can be found in the Zika virus pandemic of 2015–2016, where changing environmental variables—particularly those associated with temperature and vector behavior—were instrumental. Climatic alterations marked by rising temperatures not only extended the geographic range of the Aedes mosquito—a crucial transmitter of the Zika virus—but also facilitated the virus' transmission, consequently enabling its penetration into previously unaffected regions (Ryan et al., 2019).
Furthermore, the Ebola virus outbreaks in Africa have exhibited a similar reliance on environmental circumstances. Deforestation and habitat degradation in the African tropics have engendered shifts in ecological dynamics, precipitating heightened human-wildlife interfaces Alexander et al., 2015).
These altered interactions have subsequently raised the risk of zoonotic spillover events, leading to outbreaks of the Ebola virus among human populations. Understanding the various impacts of climate change on global health is facilitated by the concept of "One Health." This holistic and interdisciplinary strategy, championed by institutions like The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recognizes the interconnectedness of human, animal, and environmental health. By emphasizing the interdependence of these domains, the concept of One Health underscores the need for collaborative efforts across disciplines to address complex global health challenges, such as zoonotic disease transmission and environmental degradation, to attain optimal health outcomes for all (Mackenzie & Jeggo, 2019).
The Unequal Burden of Climate Change on Global Health
The harmful impacts of climate change, while increasing for all people, are significantly amplified for those people in marginalized communities. This amplification can be attributed to the existence of long-term socioeconomic disparities and discriminatory land-use practices that impede the access of these communities and the people residing in them to essential resources (Poverty, Livelihoods and Sustainable Development, n.d.). Consequently, they become more susceptible to the devastating consequences of natural disasters and other climate change-related health issues. For example, these communities sometimes inhabit inadequately constructed dwellings situated in regions prone to flooding, thereby exacerbating the hazards and repercussions of extreme weather events.
These communities also frequently encounter restricted access to healthcare services as a result of socioeconomic or geographic factors, including distance from healthcare providers and financial limitations that hinder their ability to afford healthcare. During climate-related emergencies, such as heat waves or hurricanes, these communities confront even more significant obstacles in obtaining medical assistance, resulting in delayed treatment and deteriorating health (Climate Change and Health Equity, 2023). In everyday life, marginalized communities are already vulnerable to poor health outcomes and may experience extra difficulties in accessing nutritious food and clean water sources. Some marginalized communities live in “food deserts,” where they have limited access to fresh, healthy foods and affordable options are high-processed and less nutritious than others (Karpyn et al., 2019). Consequently, diet-associated diseases—including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes—can become more prevalent in such communities, rendering them prone to the harmful impacts of public health crises such as pandemics (Seligman et al., 2010). The challenges associated with accessing fresh, healthy foods are further exacerbated by climate change increasing the costs of food production.
The COVID-19 pandemic serves as a clear illustrator of the presence of disparities in healthcare access on a global level. Developed nations managed to obtain and distribute vaccines at a significantly higher pace in comparison to developing countries, resulting in limited availability of life-saving vaccines for vulnerable populations in low-income communities and nations (Md Khairi et al., 2022). This unequal distribution of vaccines highlights the manner in which catastrophic public health crises are amplified by the existing inequities in healthcare access across different countries.
Furthermore, climate change-induced environmental problems, such as rising sea levels and extreme weather, have given rise to the global phenomenon of climate refugees. Directly, these challenges have led people and communities to desert their homes out of fear of the effects of changing environments, such as access to food, shelter, or water. The challenges faced by climate refugees include relocation, lack of means of earning their living, limited legal protection, overcrowding of the reception areas, and lack of the required infrastructure.
By comparison, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, exemplifies a domestic situation of environmental injustice. The choice to switch the city's water source to the Flint River resulted in the contamination of the water supply with lead, which had a disproportionate impact on African-American communities with the city being predominantly African-American and a significant portion of the population under the poverty line (Campbell et al., 2016). This situation highlights the fact that marginalized communities frequently experience the negative consequences of environmental policies, which in turn lead to detrimental health outcomes.
Environmental Justice and Global Health
The relationships between social injustice, healthcare disparities, and public health crises are intricately woven. Social injustices, which encompass disparities in healthcare access, economic inequality, and systemic discrimination, significantly amplify the repercussions of public health crises. These disparities entail unequal access to healthcare resources and heightened disease burdens, thereby fostering increased disease transmission during public health crises. Moreover, economic disparities—closely intertwined with social injustice—confer vulnerability upon marginalized communities through compromised living conditions, reduced educational opportunities, and inequities in healthcare access and quality. Discrimination and bias within healthcare settings further exacerbate these disparities, resulting in disparate health outcomes. The workforce in low-paying but essential roles, often lacking adequate benefits, faces increased risks of disease transmission, while crowded living conditions impede effective public health precautions (Shadmi et al., 2020). Additionally, disparities in health education hinder the capacity of some to follow public health guidelines. An example is vaccine hesitancy, stemming from historical injustices and discrimination, which further complicates pandemic responses (Njoku et al., 2021).
Systemic racism exerts a profound influence on health outcomes, giving rise to enduring disparities in healthcare access, quality, and overall well-being among racial and ethnic minority populations. This phenomenon underscores the historical and institutional inequities that continue to perpetuate health disparities, with minorities often facing challenges in accessing healthcare due to factors such as geographical disparities, transportation limitations, and inadequate insurance coverage (Gee & Ford, 2011). Additionally, systemic racism fosters disparities in the quality of healthcare delivered to these populations, manifesting in areas such as pain management, chronic disease management, and maternal health. This issue is further compounded by discrimination and bias within healthcare settings. The adverse impacts of systemic racism also extend to mental health—with minority populations experiencing higher rates of mental health conditions (Williams, 2018)—and to maternal health, notably affecting Black women with elevated rates of maternal mortality and adverse birth outcomes (Njoku et al., 2023).
Equitable access to healthcare, as previously discussed in the context of addressing systemic racism, is of paramount importance. Systemic racism can exacerbate healthcare disparities, making it even more crucial to address these disparities through equitable access. When individuals from marginalized racial and ethnic groups face unequal access to healthcare, it perpetuates the cycle of systemic racism and contributes to poorer health outcomes for these populations. Ensuring equitable access to healthcare, regardless of one's background, is a key strategy for dismantling systemic racism in healthcare and promoting health equity. This approach aligns with the principles of fairness and social justice and contributes to improved public health outcomes.
Efforts to Ameliorate Global Health and Environmental Injustice
Environmental and social activism plays an indispensable role in addressing the pressing issues of climate change and social justice. Activists and grassroots organizations are instrumental in advocating for change at both the local and global levels. Their efforts encompass raising awareness, mobilizing communities, and pressuring policymakers and corporations to adopt more sustainable and equitable practices. These activists often serve as catalysts for initiating critical conversations around climate action and social justice, compelling stakeholders to acknowledge the urgent need for change. Their advocacy not only provides a vital counterbalance to vested political and economic interests but also fosters an environment where issues like environmental sustainability and justice are given the attention and priority they deserve. For example, in the United States in 2017, several indigenous activists protested the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatened to pollute the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s water source and sacred lands (What to Know about the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests, 2016). Their peaceful protests drew global attention, leading to delays and legal challenges. Although the pipeline was eventually completed, the activism spotlighted issues of environmental justice. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), another entity, has held a prominent position as the primary authority on the Clean Air Act over the last few decades. During this time, they have leveraged the Act in legal proceedings against significant polluters, particularly those that have had a disproportionate impact on low-income communities (Racial Disparities and Climate Change, 2020).
On a larger scale, global cooperation and policy changes are paramount in addressing the interconnected challenges of climate change and social justice. Climate change, for instance, is a global crisis that requires collaborative efforts to mitigate its impacts. International agreements such as the Paris Agreement exemplify the importance of global cooperation in tackling climate change, as they provide a framework for nations to collectively work toward common goals (Skjærseth et al., 2021). Similarly, addressing social justice issues, including economic inequality and racial discrimination, necessitates international collaboration and the reformation of policies and systems that perpetuate such disparities. National policies that promote equity, inclusivity, and environmental sustainability are crucial in effecting change on a global scale. Potential solutions include implementing carbon footprint pricing mechanisms, supporting renewable energy transitions, and advancing social justice policies, such as affirmative action and inclusive economic development strategies. Ultimately, the success of these efforts hinges on the cooperation of nations and the alignment of their policies with the goals of a more just and sustainable world.
Addressing climate change, public health crises, and social injustice requires a nuanced, multifaceted approach. Solutions for climate change involve transitioning to renewable energy sources, implementing sustainable practices in industries, and promoting sustainable land use and resource management. To combat public health crises, we need robust public health infrastructure, global surveillance systems, and equitable access to vaccines and healthcare. For social injustice, inclusive policies that focus on economic and educational opportunities for marginalized communities should be enacted, while education should emphasize empathy, understanding, and advocacy for social and environmental justice.
Inclusive policies and education are vital components of effecting meaningful change. Moreover, they are essential for reducing disparities and ensuring that the benefits of sustainable practices and healthcare access are equitably distributed. Education plays a critical role in raising awareness, fostering empathy, and nurturing informed citizens who can actively engage with environmental and social justice issues. Furthermore, education can empower individuals to become advocates for change, helping to drive collective efforts toward a more equitable and sustainable future. Advocating for a just transition to a more sustainable future is imperative. This transition involves creating pathways for marginalized communities to benefit from green jobs and sustainable practices, ensuring that the transition is not only environmentally responsible but also equitable. It is crucial to support policies that prioritize social and environmental justice, recognizing that true sustainability must prioritize both the planet and its inhabitants. By actively championing these principles and encouraging systemic change, we can contribute to a more just, resilient, and sustainable world for all.
The interconnectedness of climate change, public health crises, and social/environmental justice highlights that these challenges cannot be effectively addressed in isolation. Climate change exacerbates public health crises and disproportionately impacts vulnerable communities, while social injustice intensifies these crises. The urgency of action is evident, as the consequences of inaction are dire, affecting not only the well-being of individuals but the stability of societies and ecosystems. It is imperative that individuals, communities, and countries act swiftly and decisively to combat climate change, address public health crises, and promote social and environmental justice together. By supporting sustainable and equitable initiatives, advocating for inclusive policies, and championing education, we can collectively contribute to a more just and sustainable future. Each of us can play a part in this transformative journey, ensuring that future generations inherit a world that values both the planet and its people.