Let’s fix the climate movement’s messaging problem this World Environmental Health Day

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Have you ever heard of World Environmental Health Day?

If the answer is no, you are not alone.

We often hear about environmental disasters and their impact on our precious planet. The problem has become so well known that more than a billion people celebrate Earth Day every year. What we rarely hear about, however, is the connection between the environment we live in and our personal health and well-being.

In 2011, the International Federation of Environmental Health launched an initiative to educate the world about environmental health issues and promote international cooperation to improve the health of the Earth. Since then, every year on September 26, a handful of organizations and individuals across the planet celebrate World Environmental Health Day to raise awareness of the impact of environmental factors on our health and that of our loved ones. In light of the current pandemic, this year’s theme will focus on the vital role environmental health practitioners play in implementing effective disease prevention measures.

External factors such as poverty, food insecurity, toxic chemicals and widespread pollution often contribute significantly to some of the most common diseases on the planet, such as asthma, cancer and heart disease. Yet the mainstream climate narrative treats the climate crisis as abstract; when in reality, environmental instability will not only impact our future lives, but it will impact the health and well-being of millions of people today in 2020.

And, unfortunately, I know this reality all too well. Growing up, I saw firsthand how increased air pollution made my dad’s asthma much worse. Throughout high school, there were several nights when I heard my dad cough to sleep in the room next to mine because his asthmatic lungs compensated for his exposure to smog and other pollutants during the day.

Yet the story we keep telling climate deniers is the story of melting ice caps and animal extinction. The story we should be telling our global society is that the climate movement is literally a fight for our lives.

Indeed, according to Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion23% of deaths worldwide and 26% of deaths of children under five are due to preventable environmental factors, including air and water pollution.

As the connection between environmentalism and health justice became clearer to me, I began to advocate for the protection of the planet and its people through my organization. Yet what I have discovered is that in educating my own community about how the climate crisis is and always has been a public health emergency, many community members have told me that they heard this for the first time. And it shows how the climate crisis is facing a huge messaging problem, and it’s the responsibility of people in this space to change that. The everyday American doesn’t take the climate crisis seriously because he still sees it as a non-issue. Not only is there a need for environmental specialists in climate literacy, but the current climate apathy shows the need for us to include more young people and credible health professionals in our climate discussion.

To be completely frank, I never entered the climate space to save turtles or stop deforestation. I did it to protect my family’s health. And, while climate change action can mitigate deforestation and more, the most important issue we need to address is the threat of climate change to human life and prosperity. We need to start changing the narrative to focus on the impact of climate change on our health and well-being. This is what we desperately need, and this is what will enable real change.

However, better than taking my word for it, on this World Environmental Health Day, I implore individuals to do their own research, speak to local movements and groups about the issue, write to their legislators, and start to educate their loved ones. Our planet is beautiful, and so is the human life on it. Together, we need to make sure we do everything we can to protect them both. Reducing environmental health disparities is essential and we have the power to help. Not only at the institutional level, but we can act at the individual level by speaking out and communicating how environmental instability is a medical emergency.

Knowledge is power, and together we can usher in a new generation of environmental health warriors to finally correct the message of the climate movement.

Rohan Arora is a licensed climate activist focused on environmental health and social justice. He is the founder and CEO of The community report, a national organization focused on turning the climate crisis into a public health emergency through outreach and youth engagement. He is also the climate activist adviser to the American Lung Association and informs their environmental health campaigns.

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