Today’s guest bloggers are APHA’s Rachel McMonagle, climate change program manager, and Kate Robb, environmental health senior program manager. In recognition of the 50th annual observance of Earth Day on April 22, the two address the importance of advocating for equity and justice and building healthy and sustainable communities.

Rachel McMonagleRachel: It’s been so exciting to see all the media attention surrounding the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The first observance in 1970 ignited such incredible passion and excitement for environmental reform. 

I hope that this energy will continue to grow globally, as well as broaden the conversation to include the health impacts of environmental policies and decisions. You can’t talk about the environment or climate change without talking about the effects on human health.

Kate: Agreed! It’s important to talk about health, equity and justice when we talk about climate change and the environment, because weKate Robb are all affected. We’ve seen the impacts of poor and unjust environmental health policy and lack of public infrastructure investments for decades. 

In recent years, U.S. communities have experienced increases in lead exposure in drinking water, injuries and fatalities from unsafe walking and cycling infrastructure and exposure to pollutants from coal-fired power plants that have been deregulated.

Unfortunately, people of color, low-income communities and other vulnerable populations continue to be disproportionately affected, often stemming from structural racism or historical disenfranchisement and discrimination. 

Strong environmental health policy, enforcement and investment will result in cleaner air, water, soil and food. It will also help protect the public and create communities with healthier environments. Earth Day is an incredible reminder and opportunity to reflect on policies that serve both the environment and human health. 

50 Years Earth Day 2020Rachel: The historical legacies and long-term stresses are critical to discuss. Adding an additional burden, we have climate change increasing the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, like wildfires and storms that can devastate a community in hours.

A community’s socioeconomic status and political power often determine its ability to quickly recover from a disaster. Regardless, we are seeing long-term mental health challenges related to climate change threats. This is especially prevalent among young people, where climate anxiety is on the rise.

Kate: The first Earth Day was led by community organizers and young people passionate about protecting the environment. They demonstrated and called for healthy, sustainable environments across the U.S. We continue to see that passion among the many movements to act on climate change and protect the health of our communities. 

Rachel: The climate youth movement has been incredibly inspiring these past few years, and they are pivoting their plans to remain virtually engaged during the COVID-19 crisis. APHA has recently released new activities and educational resources to support youth climate action that can be done while safely practicing physical distancing at home. By engaging young people on climate change in a positive way, maybe we can help create future generations of hopeful climate advocates.

Kate: I’ve also seen some passionate young activists inspiring big changes, like Amariyanna Copeny, who became an activist during the Flint Water Crisis and who continues advocating on behalf of her community and larger movements to elevate awareness of environmental racism. 

Tammy Ramos is another youth organizer, who is fighting for her community and speaking out against environmental racism. She, along with other organizers of the Communities for a Better Environment, sued the city of Los Angeles over violating a state regulation law in order to exempt oil wells from environmental review.

Rachel: I hope the recent environmental progress due to COVID-19 is a wake-up call for everyone. I’ve seen some incredible images and reports on the positive environmental impacts of the global slow-down around COVID-19. This pandemic has shown that environmental benefits are immediate and powerful if we choose to act.

Kate: At the same time, we must remain vigilant of the environmental policies that are being considered while we are all working so hard on COVID-19. Last week, APHA spoke out against an EPA rule that would prevent the agency from using the best available science when working on regulations. When EPA refused to host a virtual public hearing, the Union of Concerned Scientists hosted their own to give the public an opportunity to provide feedback on the dangerous rule.

Rachel: It is so important, now more than ever, to advocate for environmental health, climate action and health equity. The communities that already experience health inequities are the same communities being hit the hardest by COVID-19. We can all meet with our local and state representatives to share local information on health impacts and how the communities we love are facing unprecedented risks from climate change. And we can get out and vote!

Kate: Another simple but very influential thing we can do every day is talk about health equity and justice when we talk about the environment and climate change. This Earth Day, I hope that everyone will advocate for equity and justice in support of healthy and sustainable communities.

Photos: Rachel McMonagle, left, and Kate Robb, right. Earth Day logo courtesy Earth Day Network.