Climate change is fundamentally a health issue

Boston must lead way, zero emissions by 2040

AS THE WILDFIRES raged out west on July 26, we woke up to a hazy sky that was uncharacteristic of the Boston area.  The usual clear and clean skies of living next to the ocean disappeared and our air quality hit a dangerous and “unhealthy” level.  As healthcare workers looking at this thick smog, we knew to expect additional emergency department and office visits for respiratory complaints.  People with asthma, including children, would have a harder time breathing because of the increased soot and particles in the air. This polluted air may also increase the transmission of COVID-19.

The fact that our air could be polluted from wildfires on the other side of the country is a stark reminder of our interconnectedness. It demonstrates that no one is safe from the ravages of climate change.  Thousands of people in the Pacific Northwest visited emergency departments because of the extreme heatwave that swept through their communities this summer. Here in Boston, we experienced the hottest June on record, followed by the wettest July on record, and in August a tropical storm. As this is being published, we are in the midst of the fourth heat wave of 2021. For us, this translates into an unacceptable increase in the number of patients being treated in hospitals for heat exhaustion and asthma exacerbations.

Climate change is fundamentally an issue of health equity and racial justice.  Heat exposure, flooding, and air pollution all disproportionately harm communities of color.  Because of historic and current day systemic racism, families in these communities have less resources to protect themselves, such as access to air conditioning and purifying units.  As a result, these communities are further affected by the less visible health impacts of climate change.  This includes everything from worsening of food insecurity and food-borne illnesses because of contaminated food and water supplies, to the lasting impact of disasters on mental health – leading to increased substance use, depression, and suicide. 

As doctors and public health professionals on the frontlines, we recognize climate action can’t wait. The stakes could not be higher. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report has made clear that there is only a narrow pathway to stabilize the earth. The science is clear – we must end all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Boston must be even more ambitious so that we can lead and show the rest of the country the path forward. Boston needs to target net zero emissions for 2040. It must make transportation a clean and accessible public good for everyone. We cannot continue to construct buildings that are hooked up to gas lines. We can instead have accountability for our development and ensure that our buildings are electrified and part of the solution. And with climate solutions, we must anchor on equity, embedding environmental justice policy into the initiatives and recognize that communities of color deserve significant investment to mitigate both current and future harms.

In the election to choose the next mayor of Boston, there is one candidate who has risen to this call of action – Councilor Michelle Wu. Wu’s plan would create a clean, revitalized economy that generates thousands of jobs while saving our planet through a Boston Green New Deal. She has put climate justice at the front and center of her platform.

We need to move forward urgently as failure on the environment will result in widespread suffering. A health-driven climate action plan is at the foundation of creating a healthy, just, and stable future. The health of all Bostonians and the future of our world require bold steps to match the scale and level of urgency that the climate emergency demands.

Meet the Author

Jarone Lee

Doctor, Massachusetts General Hospital
Meet the Author

Ray Liu

Doctor, Massachusetts General Hospital
Meet the Author

Gaurab Basu

Primary care physician and co-director, Center for Health Equity Education and Advocacy at Cambridge Health Alliance
Meet the Author

Natalia Linos

Executive director, FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University
Boston must be a leader in showing communities around this country that transformational leadership can ensure our neighborhoods and planet thrive. If we cannot show the rest of the country how cities can be leaders in climate solutions, who will?

Jarone Lee and Ray Liu are physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital. Gaurab Basu is a primary care physician and co-director of the Center for Health Equity Education and Advocacy at Cambridge Health Alliance. Natalia Linos is executive director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.