Opinion | Energy & Environment

Political leaders will benefit from a new climate focus: Protecting health

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

COVID-19 is reminding us that, ultimately, health is the first consideration for every personal decision we make - about how we live, work, travel and play. It should underscore to our political leaders that health must be the first consideration for every policy decision they make-and that they will be held accountable for the consequences of their decisions. If political leaders are not letting health experts guide them with the best available facts and science, they will be making life and death decisions while blindfolded.

Does this scenario sound familiar? It should.

Health experts have been telling us that climate change - like COVID-19 - is a health emergency. Similarly, the impacts of COVID-19 may be most acute now, but they will play out over many years, just as climate impacts are also here now, but will worsen dramatically in years to come. The health harms of climate change - from excessive heat, extreme weather events, increased air pollution, food and water-borne disease, vector-borne illness, and mental health stress - are already upon us

COVID-19 makes the response to climate-related disasters even more challenging, and vice versa. This, in part, prompted a recent call to action-issued by 150 major health organizations, representing the nation's health professionals-which details ten priorities for addressing climate change through the prism of protecting and promoting equitable health care ways.

Like the initial outbreaks of COVID-19, the health harms wrought by climate change are harbingers of future catastrophic health and economic consequences - unless we take concerted action now. And like COVID, the health harms of climate change are felt most acutely among people already experiencing the burdens of inequity, including the elderly, low-income communities - rural and urban alike - and many communities of color. 

But we're not hearing political leaders talk enough to the American people about the most politically relevant truth about climate change: that our health and safety is now in jeopardy. Every district or state has lost their homes or farms in floods, or city-dwellers in urban heat islands, or suburbanites at risk from wildfires and mosquito- and tick-borne diseases, or coastal residents threatened by rising tides. Americans no longer see the climate crisis as a vague problem to encounter in the distant future. They see it here and now in the concrete harms of climate change on their health, safety and livelihoods.

Public opinion surveys have chronicled this dramatic increase in concern about climate change over the past five years. For the first time, nearly half of Americans agree that climate is already harming them personally - and a majority now see climate as a threat to their health.

Polling responses also show that when climate change is framed as a health issue, public opinion becomes less politically polarized, with moderates and conservatives moving toward more significant concern about climate change and greater support for climate action. Politicians thus have an opportunity in the run-up to the November election to connect the dots between the climate crisis and our health and to win over new voters while maintaining existing support. 

How will clean energy improve local air quality? How will retrofitting for energy efficiency and new, improved tree canopies build community resilience and improve mental and economic wellbeing? How will new agricultural practices strengthen our food and nutrition, and the health and economic wellbeing of our farmers? How will new sidewalks and bike lanes improve children's health? Once the political discussion of climate becomes about protecting and promoting health, seeking support for climate action priorities becomes a much easier sell. 

The bottom line is that we're in a new political era, and health will be the center of its discourse. There are hundreds of doctors, nurses and public health experts around our country. They are eager to help craft policies that address climate and health and support leaders committed to a better, healthier future. Given that we will be increasingly relying on them, we must listen to our country's health professionals and give them a prominent seat at the table as we craft policies that will directly impact the wellbeing of our fellow Americans.

Risa Lavizzo-Mourey is a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center's Board of Directors and former head of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Jerry Taylor is the president of the Niskanen Center.

Outbrain