In the last month, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my older son and his wife, and my two young grandchildren living in California. Throughout the record-breaking heatwaves, I worry for their health. And as I think into the coming months, I know they’ll once again experience the impacts of wildfires that keep them in their homes, with two air purifiers running, prepared to leave if the fires come their way. My son is fortunate to have the resources to clean their air and be ready to leave if necessary. Most don’t have that option. 

I hope that this heat and these wildfires are also on the minds of members of Congress as they urgently move to pass a $3.5 trillion dollar budget that can give us confidence that we will have the opportunity to live healthy, stable and secure lives in our warming world.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that our health is more than a series of individual choices; our health is deeply connected to our neighbors and the decisions of our leaders, and the policies they implement are critical to ensuring families can afford enough food or remain safely in their homes. For most of us, it will be hard to go back to thinking of health as a function of one person’s choices in a vacuum, free from outside forces.  

The ongoing onslaught of climate change-fueled extreme weather events around the country is teaching us the same thing.  

While the health and safety threats posed by climate change look different in every part of the country, these threats are making our lives less predictable and less secure. From record-shattering heatwaves and wildfires in the West and changing weather patterns that threaten agriculture across the Midwest and Plains, to the spread of tick-borne diseases in the Northeast and hurricanes with sea level rise and flooding in the Southeast, climate change is there when you step back and look. Everyone’s health is threatened, but, just as with COVID-19, some of our neighbors face a greater risk as a result of low income, racial injustice, policy failures or disinvestments in some communities. 

The good news is that many leaders in Congress have made clear that they want the new budget to invest in climate change solutions alongside health, infrastructure and other critical investments. Forward movement in the right way can solve several challenges at once — economic recovery, healthclimate change and advancing racial equity — with careful, well-designed policies and investments across government.  

As they shape this budget, members of Congress should invest in transportation and infrastructure that undergird and shape our communities so they are better connected with cleaner, more active, and less polluting means of travel. This infrastructure should have increased protection from the new threats posed by climate change, such as torrential rain and pronounced droughts.  

Well-targeted transportation infrastructure can improve health and advance racial equity by reducing air and climate pollution with electric school and public buses, heavy duty trucks, automobiles, as well as with expanded public transit. Better infrastructure can create streets safe for biking and walking to increase opportunities for physical activity and thereby reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease. We can advance fairness by targeting these investments so they serve low-income areas and communities of color that have not received the same investment as affluent white neighborhoods, which are already more likely to be greener and thus cooler and more walkable.  

Legislators should also prioritize investing in infrastructure by protecting communities vulnerable to climate-related flooding and drought, ensuring clean and affordable drinking water for every person in the U.S. We can maximize investments in weatherization, energy retrofits and efficiency, and assistance to assure that all families can afford heating and cooling. This investment pays off in improved health and helps respond to and slow climate change.  

Finally, Congress should invest in a rapid transition to non-fossil fuel-based, non-combustible renewable energy and 100 percent clean electricity by 2035. We should do better than we’ve pledged on the global stage so that we can reduce the asthma, heart disease, poorer birth outcomes and neurological impacts in newborns and the elderly from exposure to air pollution by stopping the burning of fossil fuels. As we make the transition, we must invest in the programs and policies that help people and communities impacted by the change take advantage of new economic opportunities. 

Solving climate change is a win for our health, now and in the future. Solving it right means solving it for everybody, including my children and grandchildren. Now is our opportunity. 

Dr. Mona Sarfaty is the director of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health.

Published on Aug 09, 2021