Environmental researchers discuss the link between the environment, ethics, and human health while outlining ways to live more sustainably.
As the old adage goes, it’s easy to wake up and feel the weight of the world on your shoulders. On a global scale, people continue to face a crippling health pandemic, challenge the deep roots of institutional racism and oppression, fight the environmental crisis, and deal with an uncertain political climate. And while many have the best intentions for positive change, finding a clear path forward to a healthier, more equitable, and more sustainable way of living can feel overwhelming.
This is why Boston University Environmental Health researchers Jon Levy and Pat Kinney recommend a solution-focused approach to explore, generate, and implement sustainable solutions to help combat some of the most pressing issues facing our world today. With more than four decades of environmental justice expertise between them, we spoke with the professors to learn more about their research, how environmental and individual health is deeply interconnected, and what we can do on an individual level to achieve a more sustainable future.
What first inspired your research and what factors motivate you to continue?
Jon Levy: I have always been interested in using quantitative tools to evaluate the health impacts of environmental exposures among vulnerable populations, but more importantly, the health benefits of reducing those exposures. Some of my early projects involved modeling the public health benefits of reduced power plant emissions, and the direct connections between those models and policy decisions were gratifying. Early in my career, I also worked on research studies in public housing and among other populations who were disproportionately exposed to many stressors in both their homes and neighborhoods, which inspired me to focus on methods to quantify the impact of cumulative exposures. I am motivated to continue by the fact that environmental exposure and health risk disparities persist, often with root causes connected to systemic racism. The research that we do has the potential to help reduce these disparities, whether related to the air pollutants I have studied since the beginning of my career or the increasing burdens of climate change.
Pat Kinney: Like most scientists, I’ve been motivated by a basic desire to understand how the world works, in my case with a focus on charting a path towards a world that is healthy for both humans and for the environment more broadly. We need to figure out how to nudge our modern way of life back into better balance with nature, so that both we and the environment that sustains us can continue to flourish for at least a few more thousands of years without major disruptions. My research has tried to untangle the links between environmental change and human health, helping to identify win-win solutions that can be translated into sustainable policies for the long-term.
How are climate and health connected?
Kinney: Climatic factors such as temperature and precipitation are fundamental determinants of where and how well people live, affecting patterns of agriculture, floods and droughts, and infectious diseases, etc. The evolution of complex human societies over the past several thousand years occurred in “sweet spots” with favorable climate conditions. As human-induced climate change has really taken hold in recent decades, we’re seeing gradual changes in temperatures and precipitation patterns that place stress on health and livelihoods, including worsening air pollution, longer and more severe pollen seasons, and the spread of mosquito-borne diseases. We also are experiencing more frequent and severe extreme events (heat waves, floods, storms, wildfires, etc.) that cause immediate and lasting trauma.
Is the health burden of climate change equal?
Kinney: The health burden of climate change differs greatly both across countries and among populations and individuals within countries. Limited access to high quality resources and infrastructure (housing, medical, food systems, transportation, etc.) which enhance resilience is a major determinant of who is most affected when communities are exposed to climate change and associated extreme events.
What are the fundamental concepts of environmental justice?
Levy: Environmental justice can be best understood by thinking about both process and outcomes. On the process side, it involves everyone having an equal voice and ability to participate in decisions related to the environment around them. On the outcome side, it involves ensuring that populations that have been historically overburdened do not continue to face disproportionate exposures and health risks. Process and outcome are connected, both because a fair process can contribute to more equitable outcomes and because knowledge about disproportionate burdens can motivate participation in the decision process. However, they need to be examined and evaluated separately.
How are air pollution, climate change and health connected?
Kinney: Burning of fossil fuels (e.g., coal, oil, gas) to power our modern society emits carbon dioxide, which is responsible for most of the climate change that is occurring. Other important greenhouse pollutants, such as methane, black carbon, and ozone, also derive to some extent from fossil fuel combustion, as well as from agriculture and other industries. These sources also release many toxic substances which are directly harmful to human health, including fine particles, toxic metals, cancer-causing organic compounds, and others. By tackling climate change, we have a huge opportunity to improve air quality, with direct and immediate benefits for a range of air pollution-related diseases, including childhood asthma, chronic respiratory and cardiovascular disease among adults.
What are some of the gaps at a federal and individual level that limit action to address environmental injustice?
Levy: At a federal level, while there is an environmental justice Executive Order that calls for all federal agencies to “identify and address the disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their actions on minority and low-income populations”, this has had limited impact in many decisions. This is partly because of data gaps, partly because analytical tools to characterize disproportionate burdens have not been applied, and partly because there are numerous structural and systemic forces that contribute to environmental injustice. At the individual level, while there is a limited ability to influence the outdoor environment, personal exposures are often dominated by exposures in the home or workplace. These exposures are more modifiable in theory, though in these cases the gaps relate to the power of vulnerable individuals to effect change (i.e., whether renters can address structural deficiencies in their units, whether workers can address unsafe workplace practices). Increased knowledge about the importance of personal exposure drivers is a necessary but not sufficient condition to address these environmental injustices.
From a research standpoint, why is a solution-focused approach critical for achieving environmental health and equity?
Levy: Many of the environmental health challenges that we face have been well described for some period of time; we know that exposure to extreme heat can lead to dehydration and resultant adverse health effects, we know lead exposure can influence learning for children, and we know that air pollution can contribute to cardiovascular disease. It certainly remains relevant and important to describe these problems in new ways and new settings, but we know enough about many exposures to pivot to solutions. In addition, overburdened communities have little interest in yet another academic study that tells them what they already know. An emphasis on solutions can lead to stronger partnerships between researchers and communities, novel insights about drivers of environmental exposures, and more equitable distributions of exposures and health effects.
What next-steps would you recommend from both a policy level and an individual level to improve our climate and health?
Kinney: Rejoining the Paris climate accord was an important first step, though much more is needed. The US Congress needs to enact legislation that will lead to aggressive efforts to limit greenhouse-inducing carbon emissions, with a goal of getting to net zero by 2050. This dovetails with policies that are being enacted by many cities across the country, and will help to encourage and support regional efforts, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and Transportation Climate Initiative in the Northeastern states. We should create incentives, support R&D and implement programs to hasten societal transition to an all-electric powered future, with the grid energized by increasing percentages of clean, renewable power. At the individual level, buy clean power, walk, bike or take public transit when feasible, and look forward to a healthier, more verdant future for our children.
For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. Follow Professor Levy on Twitter at @jonlevyBU. Follow Professor Kinney at @PatrickKinney20. For research news and updates from BU’s School of Public Health, follow @BUSPH and the Department of Environmental Health at @busphEH.