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  • Writer's pictureEnvironmental Health Project

Climate Week NYC Sets the Stage for Defending Public Health

Held this September in New York City, the 2023 Climate Week NYC highlighted the urgency of global cooperation in tackling climate change. The event was held during the 78th United Nations General Assembly, which saw world leaders discuss global strategies and commitments to accelerate action towards achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Environmental Health Project’s Kholood Ben-Essa was able to attend several of the Climate Week events. Here’s what Kholood had to say about the experience and what it means to defend public health in Pennsylvania, the Northeast, the Ohio River Valley, and beyond.

Climate Week NYC 2023. Creative Commons 2.0

What happened at the event?

This year’s Climate Week NYC featured insightful discussions with government representatives, community activists and residents, and private sector participants. The consensus of the event was clear: global solidarity and a just transition away from fossil fuels and toward less-polluting energy is necessary, but the paths to achieve it vary. The key takeaway was the importance of partnerships and collective action in driving climate change solutions.

What do you mean by “a just transition”?

For those of us at the Environmental Health Project (EHP), “a just transition” means that, while it’s vitally important to change the way we generate energy in our country and across the globe, we must also be cognizant of the complexity involved in doing so. A rapid shift in energy generation and usage is needed to stave off the impacts of climate change, but an uncoordinated shift could also cause financial hardship for some. For example, workers might need to switch jobs. Consumers might encounter reduced choice for certain purchases like appliances or vehicles. Others might need to undergo lifestyle changes that make them uncomfortable. Such changes could be especially hard on environmental justice communities, who have lived with the financial and health burdens of industrial pollution for a long time. Social inequities and health disparities will persist without intentional protections for marginalized workers and community members.

A just transition, however, identifies potential hardships and addresses them before they happen. For instance, workers who might lose their jobs when fossil fuels are phased out could be provided training and assistance to transition into other sectors, such as the fast-growing renewable energies field. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, in 2022 alone, clean energy jobs grew 3.9%, adding 114,000 jobs nationally and increasing to over 40% of total energy jobs.

Also in a just transition, consumers may be provided economic assistance to make needed energy conversions, such as the subsidies currently offered for the purchase of electric vehicles or appliances. Further, the public should be made aware of the benefits of switching to renewable energies and how this transformation will, over time, make life better for everyone, and any identified barriers to adoption—particularly in low-income communities—should be removed or minimized where possible.

A just transition means a world where pollution is minimized and people can breathe healthier air, drink purer water, and eat food grown in richer soil. Hospital visits and outpatient procedures related to adverse health impacts from pollution exposure could be fewer, saving healthcare costs in the long run.

A Rapid and Just Fossil Fuel Phase-Out: Benoit Charette, Samuel Egendorf, Chole Hicks, Moderated by Rasmus Valanko. Climate Week NYC 2023 in New York, New York, on Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. Creative Commons 2.0

Why is such a transition necessary to defend public health?

There are many reasons why we need to make the transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. From a public health perspective, the emissions released by extracting and burning fossil fuels negatively impact climate change. Methane, a key component of shale gas, is estimated to be responsible for more than 25 percent of the climate warming we are experiencing today. Climate change has serious, global health consequences through increases in damaging storms, heat waves, floods, fires, and insect-borne diseases. The injuries and loss of life caused by these extreme events are often catastrophic.

While climate change affects everyone, people who are in proximity to an elevated level of pollutants—such as those from well pads, power plants, compressor stations, pipelines, and petrochemical complexes—are especially hard hit. That is because they are directly exposed to emissions from this infrastructure and, therefore, are at higher risk of significant health impacts. More than two dozen epidemiological studies show a correlation between shale gas development and health issues for residents living nearby. Hundreds of other investigations and first-hand accounts have shown that shale gas development correlates with poor health outcomes for people living in proximity to such infrastructure.

These health outcomes include respiratory problems like asthma, chronic bronchitis, and reduced lung function. In addition, exposure to these chemicals can cause skin and eye irritation, as well as other symptoms like headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Research has shown that living near shale gas development increases the likelihood of babies being born prematurely or with lower birth weights or birth defects. Some of the chemicals used in shale gas development have also been linked to an increased risk of cancer, particularly in those who are exposed over a long period of time. Vulnerable people—children, the elderly, individuals who are pregnant, those with preexisting conditions—are especially impacted by these chemicals.

What are community members doing to assist in this endeavor?

The role of community engagement is pivotal in rallying support for swift climate transformation. At the Climate Week NYC event, community members shared their successful experiences in advocating for healthier and more sustainable energy solutions in their neighborhoods.

One inspiring story was Sharon Lavigne, who through grassroots mobilization, halted the construction of a plant that would have generated one million pounds of hazardous waste in “Cancer Alley”—an 85-mile stretch of land along the Mississippi River in Louisiana that contains more than 200 petrochemical plants and refineries and is known for the significant health impacts residents have experienced there.

Residents must have more say in making policy decisions that impact their communities. And governments must step up to make sure the health of residents and their families are protected.

How will EHP make a difference in the wake of Climate Week NYC?

President Biden’s recent address at the United Nations General Assembly underscored the urgency of transitioning away from fossil fuels, a message that strongly resonates with EHP’s mission to assist communities across different regions in defending their health, while cautioning against misleading solutions that may have complex and potentially harmful impacts, such as hydrogen sourced from shale gas. EHP plans to leverage the lessons learned at Climate Week NYC to continue to raise awareness and to help communities advocate for cleaner, healthier alternatives to fossil fuels.


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