Catalyst for action – the climate change, air pollution and public health nexus

25 September 2018

By Paulette Frank

How can we inspire more action to protect planetary health at the pace and scale the world needs? Paulette Frank, Johnson & Johnson’s Worldwide Vice President for Environmental Health, Safety & Sustainability, asserts that public health could be the unifying motivator to tackle both air pollution and climate change simultaneously.

When people typically think of climate change they think of polar bears or melting ice caps. When people think of air pollution they think of smoking tailpipes and billowing smoke stacks. But the question is: do people connect the two? Do they recognize that climate change and air pollution are interconnected, as are their related human health impacts?

Ambient and household air pollution are together responsible for one in nine deaths, making air pollution among the leading causes of death globally and attributable for more than twice the deaths from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Nine out of ten peoplebreathe air containing high levels of pollutants — many of the world’s megacities exceed World Health Organization’s guideline levels for air quality by more than five times, representing a major risk to human health.

Specifically, the connection between climate and air pollution comes down to short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) like black carbon, methane and ground level ozone. These SLCPs primarily come from the burning of carbon-based fuels — typically fossil fuel combustion in high and middle-income countries and burning of biomass in low-income countries — and account for 85% of airborne particulate pollution. These pollutants are also a leading cause of many non-communicable diseasessuch as heart disease, stroke, COPD, and lung cancer.

Consequently, the actions that can improve air quality and human health can also mitigate climate change. Johnson & Johnson has been building the case for positive climate action for decades. We have set our own public environmental performance goals for nearly 30 years, including goals to reduce the carbon footprint of our operations and we share our progress every year in our Health for Humanity report. We joined the Climate Group’s RE100 (Renewable Electricity 100) campaign in 2015 with an aspiration to source all our electricity from renewable sources.

Would more people take personal action to address climate change – such as walking, biking, and taking public transportation – if they knew the same actions improved the quality of the air they breathe? Would more people demand access to renewable energy? Would more people be inspired to care for the health of our planet if their own health depended on it? At Johnson & Johnson, we believe the answers are yes. By leveraging health as a motivator and shifting environmental conversations from climate science to something as universal as the need to breathe clean air, we believe that individual communities and policy makers will take more action to improve environmental health.

This is why Johnson & Johnson became one of the founding partners of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health, a group bringing together top medical associations representing more than 500,000 clinicians to help educate Americans about the health effects of climate change and promote life-saving actions, including the decreased use of carbon-based fuels. We believe these trusted advisors and community members are some of the best messengers to help raise awareness and reframe the conversation on climate change.

We also support the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a network of 90 of the world’s largest cities, to drive policy action and impact at a city level. Most of global greenhouse gas emissions are generated in cities and 68% of the global population is projected to live in urban areas by 2050. Through C40, we are working with 30 cities to conduct research and identify climate actions that deliver air quality and public health benefits with the aim of increasing political and financial buy-in to drive greater action and impact at scale.

Improving the health of our planet is a task beyond the capabilities of any one individual, company, or government. At Johnson & Johnson, we are committed to doing our part by using our global reach and resources to spark broader conversations and encourage more actors to participate at all levels and sectors of society. We believe one of those conversations must be about the inextricable link between human and planetary health. The time has come for a different, and more holistic, dialogue on climate health. With health as a unifier, we can motivate more people to start caring for the planet like our health depends on it – because it does.

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