Bold ideas at the intersection of climate, health, & justice
By Max Aung, MPH, PhD and Lariah Edwards, PhD
Three leaders in the fields of public health and agroecology recently put the heat on historic injustices — and shed light on necessary paths forward.
In the latest collaboration between the Collaborative for Health and Environment, the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice Program, and the Center for Environmental Health and Justice in Northern Manhattan at Columbia University, we hosted a dynamic discussion with Ans Irfan, Daniel Carrión, and Alexa White.
From the macro to the micro, these scholars integrated their lived experiences to convey to the online audience how we can integrate historical context with innovative research and education as we confront the challenges of climate change for human health and the environment.
Equitable climate policy requires diversity at the table
Two of our panelists, Irfan and White, had the privilege of participating in the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP) in Egypt, where the theme of justice took center stage for the first time. Irfan asserted that these meetings have profound consequences for agenda setting, both in domestic U.S. policy and in international affairs. As such, it is critical for the general public to become more involved in the content and decisions being made by world leaders.
Irfan also spoke about the need to reflect on domestic U.S. actions that have amplified climate change — including growing fossil fuel consumption — and determine how to equitably account for this in shaping international policies.
Both White and Irfan emphasized the need for further action. White described her role in meetings in the Climate Justice Pavilion, which included students and grassroots organizations. She noted, however, that there should be more time and space allocated for diverse voices:
“We need to strive for greater representation and inclusivity by incorporating historically marginalized voices in the ongoing discussions aimed at addressing the present and impending climate crises.”
The next COP meeting will incorporate health into the conversation. Therefore, research on climate change and health will be critical for informing global climate policy.
Research should be sustained — & authentic
The growing emphasis on and enthusiasm for research on health inequities related to climate change is a crucial and exciting development. However, it's essential to keep our ultimate goals in mind.
Carrión emphasized that truly transformative solutions to safeguard communities can only arise from research that is both meaningful and involves community engagement. Notably, such research should be driven by and for the communities it seeks to benefit.
It is also essential to integrate multiple disciplines. Carrión has approached this through collaborations with community-based organizations to address housing security and justice to prepare and adapt to climate change. White addresses interdisciplinary needs in climate change through agroecology and focusing on the sustainability of food systems and regimes — thinking about how we grow food and its impact on climate change.
Brightest solutions can begin in the classroom
As we look to the future of research on climate justice and health, we also need to ensure that the next generation of researchers have the resources and training to develop sustained solutions to address climate change.
Carrión described the challenge of balancing the multiple backgrounds and disciplines among students taking his courses on climate change and health. This reflects the immense interdisciplinary nature of climate change research and education.
Carrión also emphasized how important it is to be aware of students’ concerns about climate change. He approaches this by encouraging his students to think forward to potential solutions that address the health and environmental consequences we face.
Irfan shared thoughts on his role as a teacher to challenge his students to think about interdisciplinary perspectives for climate solutions. In the classroom, he facilitates creative and innovative student projects to highlight any aspect of climate and health — including multi-media, art, and science and policy.
Science communication and translation are key
The very occurrence of this webinar reflects all speakers’ commitment to taking research and education beyond the classroom and ivory tower.
This was further reflected by White’s recent major effort in leading a publicly accessible, two-day symposium on energy justice. It also involves writing informational and reflection pieces, as highlighted by Irfan’s recent opinion-editorial on the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action — underscoring the grave implications this decision could have on the future of educating diverse scholars.
Collectively, as we continue to engage in research and education surrounding climate justice and health in ways that support solutions, partnerships between academics and organizations like the Collaborative for Health and Environment and Environmental Health News will be critical for ensuring that research findings and diverse perspectives are communicated and accessible to the public.
Max Aung, MPH, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Environmental Health at the University of Southern California and a JPB Environmental Health Fellow through Harvard University. Dr. Aung is an alumnus of the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice Fellowship as well as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Research Scholars Fellowship. His research focuses on applying data science frameworks to understand potential mechanisms linking chemical mixtures to health across the life course and pursuing environmental justice.
Lariah Edwards, PhD, is an environmental health scientist with years of experience critically evaluating toxicological and epidemiological data for the purpose of understanding health effects associated with exposure to environmental chemicals. Edwards is an Associate Research Scientist in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. She is also an alumna of the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice Fellowship.