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Are we up to the task of fighting climate change?

“You bet we are!” Gina McCarthy said during the Annual Meeting’s energizing Monday General Session on “The Future of Environmental Health.”

McCarthy, who wasted no time getting back into environmental activism after her eight-year stint as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, fired up the session’s thousands of attendees. Sitting across from APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, the two discussed issues of social justice, with McCarthy repeatedly emphasizing the need to look through both a public health lens and an environmental lens when addressing climate change.

“Climate change disproportionally impacts those most vulnerable,” stressed McCarthy. “There is an intersect between public health and pollution.”

Globally, pollution now contributes to an estimated 9 million deaths a year, disproportionately affecting underserved communities and developing countries. In her time as EPA administrator, McCarthy elaborated on her signature pollution reduction regulations such as the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent by 2030, and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which sets limits on mercury pollution. Both are critical public health initiatives actively championed by APHA.

The former administrator also touched on issues surrounding the importance of communicating science and supporting grassroots environmental and public health activism.

Along with the discussion between McCarthy and Benjamin, the Monday session honored Lex Frieden with the 2017 Fries Prize for Improving Health for being an architect of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Frieden, who sustained a spinal cord injury and became quadriplegic in 1967, has since dedicated his life to advancing rights for people living with disabilities.

“There are legions of heroes in the fight for ADA,” Frieden said. Yet “there is much more that needs to be done.” Frieden, a Houston resident, went on to explain that emergency services for people with disabilities, such as after a natural disaster, must be improved.

The session also featured environmental health sciences professor Howard Frumkin of the University of Washington, who discussed the Lancet Countdown’s 2017 Report and launched its U.S. brief, which was co-published with APHA. The report tracks 40 public health indicators across five areas and uses data-focused findings to drive policy recommendations and communication tools for outreach. The U.S. report focuses on climate change effects impacting Americans.

McCarthy left the audience with a message of cautious optimism. She said that despite regressive tactics by the current administration, the wheels pushing the clean energy revolution are already in motion: “Clean energy is winning,” she said.

As the country enters challenging times ahead, each public health and climate change champion should take heart, McCarthy said, and be prepared to speak out loudly and repeatedly.

“Success is about leadership,” remarked McCarthy. “We need to return to what made this country so successful. Washington has forgotten how to govern, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us have.”

This post from guest blogger David Richards.

Above, former  EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy talks to attendees at Monday’s General Session in Atlanta. Photo by Jim Ezell/courtesy EZ Event Photography

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