Statement by the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health on Racial Injustice and Systemic Racism in the United States

The killing of George Floyd has brought us face-to-face once again with the legacy of slavery and the terrible stain of racism that continues to diminish us as a nation and threatens the lives of Black men and women in the United States. We remember the names of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others. While the harassment, brutality, and killing of Black men and women at the hands of police officers has been more visible in recent years, we know this has been a persistent crisis since the founding of the United States. We believe that national, state, and local leaders must immediately put a stop to police brutality and harassment of people of color and hold active duty and former policemen fully accountable for their actions. But rooting out the racism that continues to plague law enforcement and our broader criminal justice system is only one step among many. The people who are living this reality every day must be included in crafting long-lasting solutions.

Historically, discriminatory laws, policies, and practices have restricted African Americans to certain neighborhoods and housing types, which in turn limited access to jobs and wealth accumulation, since homeownership is the largest source of wealth for most Americans. These communities of color continue to this day to suffer from underinvestment and policies that reflect persisting structural racism. Structural racism is the systematic de-valuing of some people and advantaging of others based on skin color across multiple laws, policies, and institutional practices. As health professionals, we see the effects of this structural racism in the health of people of color and Indigenous people living in the United States. It is evident in the increased COVID-19 deaths for those living in communities beset with poor air quality where housing, transportation, economic development, and zoning practices place them in proximity with toxins, industrial emissions, and diesel exhaust exposure. It is evident where more hazardous conditions overlap with deprivations like insufficient access to healthy food, clean air and water, and poor access to jobs, and health services. The result is a devastating mix of higher rates of health dangers such as infant mortality, asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and infectious diseases such as COVID-19.

Most directly related to our work, racism also causes an increased likelihood of greater vulnerability to the adverse health consequences from climate change because of degraded built environments and lack of access to information, political power, and financial resources needed to build resilience. Resilience is essential in the face of climate change. In addition, these neighborhoods are often more vulnerable to the effects of heat, storms and floods. People have less ability to escape danger because of a dearth of transportation options and inadequate financial assets.

We believe the United States must address the threats of climate change and increase investments and policies that improve the social determinants of health and promote racial and economic equity. Building a green economy based on clean energy, zero-carbon transportation, and healthier agricultural and land use policies that draw carbon from the air have the potential to realize an improved future. The only sustainable remedy to the increased risk of health harms from climate change will be achieved by addressing the underlying conditions that cause people to be more vulnerable to ill health throughout their lives.

The principle is simple: everyone deserves an equal opportunity to live a healthy life.