4 Questions About the Health Impacts of Climate Change
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Human health and environmental health are fundamentally linked. That’s something Johnson & Johnson has long understood. And that interdependence is becoming increasingly fraught by the effects of climate change—especially for people who live in historically marginalized communities most susceptible to its effects. They know firsthand that delivering and receiving healthcare can be sorely compromised when Mother Nature is compromised.
“Access to healthcare is a major determinant of health equity, with lesser access often falling along lines of race, ethnicity and income,” says Paulette Frank, Chief Sustainability Officer, Johnson & Johnson. “More than 40% of Americans live in counties that were hit by climate-related extreme weather last year; the impacts fall disproportionately on under-resourced communities. If a healthcare clinic has to close due to a climate-related weather event—a flood, fire, hurricane or heat wave, for example—people who rely on that clinic may have no other options for care when they need it most.”
Johnson & Johnson is looking to fortify the resilience of healthcare clinics serving those placed at increased risk to climate catastrophes through a new collaboration with Americares and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Climate Change, Health and the Global Environment (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE, for short). The aim? Bolster both the operational resilience in clinics as well as the resilience of the healthcare workers so that when extreme weather events occur people will still be able to get the healthcare they need. The goal is to support up to 150 medical clinics across the U.S. by 2025.
For Earth Day, we sat down with Frank to learn more about the initiative and how it ties in with the company’s larger goals to support a healthy planet and eliminate health disparities across the U.S.
The World Health Organization calls climate change one of the greatest threats to global health. Who is most impacted by the effects of climate change on human health?
Science clearly shows that the planet is not healthy and that climate change is a threat to global public health. As urgent as this situation is, it is even more acute for people and communities that have already been made vulnerable.
Studies show that children, older populations, ethnic minorities, those with underlying health problems and communities that have been historically excluded from access to healthcare are the ones whose health is affected the most by climate change. This is due in part because of where they live and because they lack the means to mitigate the impacts.
In the U.S., where this clinic resilience work will initially be focused, this often includes communities of color. For example, climate change-induced extreme heat, which has already become substantially more common and severe, has placed Black Americans and Indigenous people at much higher risk of heat-related death than white Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
How did this new initiative come about?
For the past several years, Johnson & Johnson has deliberately been leaning into the intersection of human health and environmental health. When the company announced Our Race to Health Equity—a commitment to help eradicate racial and social injustice as a public health threat—we were inspired to find partners that share our commitment to the issues of climate change and health equity, specifically focusing on communities of color. This led us to Harvard Chan C-CHANGE, who we’ve worked with in the past, and Americares, who our Global Community Impact team has partnered with for years.
Advancing health equity is dependent on access to healthcare for all, but climate-related extreme weather events can cause significant damage to critical infrastructure, like medical clinics, right when communities need them most. Through this new initiative Johnson & Johnson will support climate resilience for clinics that serve communities with limited access to care who may already be feeling the impacts of climate change on their health.
What would you most like everyone to understand about the connection between human health and environmental health?
Scientific reports continue to show us the many ways in which climate change is impacting human health—from exposure to extreme heat to changing infectious disease patterns and the increased risk of drought and food insecurity. This even includes impacts on our mental health. Research published in The Lancet shows that failure to properly address environmental risk factors “threatens to undermine the last half century of gains in…global health.”
At Johnson & Johnson, we recognize our opportunity to take meaningful and long-term action. The company is bringing the same heart, science and ingenuity to address climate change and climate-related health impacts that it brings to all global health challenges. This means continually improving the environmental footprint of our operations, our products and our value chain—from what we source from suppliers to the products we manufacture and deliver to our customers and consumers around the world—while also working with partners to help eliminate today’s global health challenges, like those pertaining to environmental health equity.
What personally motivates your dedication to all that’s happening at the intersection of human health and environmental health?
I get excited about unique opportunities to use our reach to improve the health of more people through our environmental sustainability work. Many companies, including Johnson & Johnson, are working on reducing their respective carbon footprints because this is what the science tells us we must do to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
And as the largest healthcare company in the world, we also have a unique opportunity to work with our partners and have a positive impact beyond the things we source and produce—a positive impact on the climate resilience of healthcare clinics and the healthcare workforce who serve historically marginalized communities.
Our commitment to the health of the planet is grounded in Our Credo values that say, “we must protect the environment and the natural resources we are privileged to use.” But Our Credo also says the company has a responsibility to “help people be healthier by supporting better access and care in more places around the world.” Johnson & Johnson's approach to sustainability is inspired by both of these tenets.
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