Ever heard of World Environmental Health Day?
If the answer is no, you’re not alone.
We often hear about environmental disasters and their impact on our precious planet. The issue has become so well-known that over one billion people celebrate Earth Day every year. What we rarely hear about, though, is the link between the environment we live in and our personal health and wellbeing.
In 2011, the International Federation of Environmental Health launched an initiative to educate the world on environmental health issues and promote international cooperation to improve Earth’s health. Since then, every year, on the 26th of September, a handful of organizations and individuals across the planet celebrate World Environmental Health Day to raise awareness about how environmental factors impact our health and the health of our loved ones. In light of the current pandemic, this year’s theme will be focused on the vital role environmental health practitioners play in implementing effective disease prevention measures.
External factors such as poverty, food insecurity, toxic chemicals, and widespread pollution often significantly contribute to some of the most widespread diseases on the planet, such as asthma, cancer and heart disease. Yet, the traditional climate narrative treats the climate crisis as abstract; when in reality, not only will environmental instability impact our future lives, it is impacting the health and well-being of millions of people today in 2020.
And, unfortunately, I know this reality all too well. Growing up, I’ve watched first-hand how increasing air pollution has caused my father’s asthma to get significantly worse. Throughout high school, there were several nights when I heard my father coughing himself to sleep in the bedroom next to mine because his asthmatic lungs were compensating for his exposure to smog and other pollutants during the day.
Yet, the story we continue to tell climate deniers is the narrative of how the ice caps are melting and how animals are going extinct. The story we should be telling our global society is that the climate movement is quite literally a fight for our lives.
In fact, according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 23 percent of deaths globally and 26 percent of deaths of children younger than five years old are due to preventable environmental factors including air and water pollution.
As the link between environmentalism and health justice became more clear to me, I began advocating to protect both the planet and its people through my organization. Yet, what I found was that as I educated my own community about how the climate crisis is and always has been a public health emergency, many community members told me that they were hearing this for the first time. And, this showcases how the climate crisis faces a huge messaging issue, and it is the responsibility of people in this space to change that. The every-day American doesn’t take the climate crisis seriously because they still think of it as a non-issue. Not only is there a need for environmental specialists in climate literacy, current climate apathy showcases the need for us to include more young people and credible health professionals in our climate discussion.
To be quite frank, I never entered the climate space to save the turtles or stop deforestation. I did it to safeguard the health of my family. And, although steps to combat climate change will be able to mitigate deforestation and more, the most important issue we need to solve is climate change’s threat to human life and prosperity. We need to start changing the narrative to focus on climate change’s impact on our health and wellbeing. It’s what we desperately need, and it is what will allow for actionable change.
However, better than taking my word for it, this World Environmental Health Day, I implore individuals to do their own research, talk to local movements and groups about the issue, write to their legislators, and start educating their loved ones. Our planet is beautiful, and so is the human life on it. Together, we need to make sure we do everything we can to protect both of them. Reducing environmental health disparities is critical, and we have the power to help. Not only at an institutional level, but we can act on an individual level by speaking up and communicating about how environmental instability is a medical emergency.
Knowledge is power, and together, we can usher in a new generation of environmental health warriors to finally fix the messaging of the climate movement.
Rohan Arora is a patented climate activist focused on environmental health and social justice. He is the founder and executive director of The Community Check-Up, a national organization focused on restructuring the climate crisis as a public health emergency through educational outreach and youth engagement. He is also the climate activist advisor to the American Lung Association and informs their environmental health campaigns.