Many people across the world will celebrate Earth Day 2022. While it is customary to see climate activists joining rallies and protests in support of action ensuring a cleaner environment, healthcare workers are important stakeholders in the fight for climate justice as well. We enter the profession because we care about and want to serve others. We are interested in all aspects of life that influence a person’s health and well-being, and the climate is no exception. As we analyze impediments to quality health, we carefully consider the impacts of the climate crisis.
“We can do everything in our power to provide quality healthcare, but if there isn’t immediate action to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and reduce pollution, our efforts will be futile,” said NYSNA President Nancy Hagans, RN. “To be clear, the onus is not just on healthcare workers. The fossil fuel industry, for example, has a moral obligation to act because they bear a disproportionate share of responsibility for the climate crisis. This isn't about distant effects, but clear, measurable, often disparate impacts from climate change and the burning of fossil fuels and extraction. Financial institutions, especially the largest US banks — many of them headquartered here in New York - share in the blame as well. Banks like Citi, Chase, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo, have poured trillions of dollars into fossil fuels. In sum, the people most responsible for the climate crisis must play a larger role in resolving it.”
Nurses See and Understand
Nurses especially appreciate that the climate crisis has a direct impact on life expectancy, especially for communities of color and poor people who are uniquely burdened by environmental racism and the climate emergency. For instance, people of color tend to live in heavier traffic areas, making them more susceptible to vehicle-related air pollution. Persons of color and persons living in poverty are also uniquely impacted by environmental racism. Princeton University found that environmental racism refers to the unequal access to a clean environment and basic environmental resources based on race. Communities of color are disproportionately victimized by environmental hazards and are far more likely to live in areas with heavy pollution. People of color are more likely to die of environmental causes, and more than half of the people who live close to hazardous waste are people of color.
“Increases in heat have contributed to an increase in hypertension,” said NYSNA member Nella Pineda-Marcon, BSN, RN-BC. “Pollutants are being discharged into our city air, causing a steady increase in chronic asthma conditions in our most vulnerable communities. In addition, these communities also face environmental injustices like contaminated water supplies and tainted soil. They are also the ones that are usually hit the hardest by catastrophic events such as Superstorm Sandy. This is not OK.”
As healthcare professionals, we understand the grave impact of the climate crisis. According to the IPCC Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability Report, we know that the climate crisis is escalating to a degree where the damage caused by pollution may be irreversible. The International Energy Agency was even clearer: net zero by 2050, which is needed in order to prevent the worst climate damages, requires no new investments in oil and gas. But Citi and Chase continue to use customer deposits — our money — to fund companies like Exxon so that they can expand their fossil fuel operations.
To be clear, transitioning to renewable energy isn’t just about stopping future disasters. It’s about protecting the world as we know it today. In the absence of action, natural disasters will occur with increasing frequency, and they will be deadlier. Supercharged storms — think about Hurricanes Katrina Ida, and Sandy, as well as the tornadoes that have ripped through the country in recent years — and you will understand the point that I am making. We are running out of time. Indeed fossil fuel extraction, transport, and combustion lead to increased rates of asthma and other health impacts that frontline communities know all too well. The fossil fuel industry will not govern itself or reverse course. It is up to its biggest enablers — the banks and insurers who finance and underwrite fossil fuel companies — to act.
We Should All Be Concerned
While all people should concern themselves with the climate crisis, nurses and healthcare professionals are keenly motivated to work toward a transition to renewable energy. Nurses are at the bedside caring for people whose health has been compromised by the climate emergency. We see patients presenting with a host of conditions associated with breathing dirty air, from respiratory challenges to birth defects, and with injuries caused by climate emergencies such as extreme heat and floods.
We live and work in high-traffic areas, which compromises the air we breathe. We are also present in the aftermath of climate emergencies such as catastrophic flooding, wildfires and droughts. In addition to tending to our own families and loved ones, we pull ourselves together so we can be of service to our communities.
As we embark upon another Earth Day approaches, we do so fully committed to creating a world where all people can live free from environmental harms and the consequences of climate change. We also enter this season understanding that despite our best wishes, we can only go so far. We need active participation and commitment from all. Nurses — and climate science — demand that banks and insurance companies end all financial services for any company that is engaged in expanding its fossil fuel operations. As customers, we can tell our bank to stop funding fossil fuels by signing-on at: https://stopthemoneypipeline.com/customers/.
People of color tend to live in heavier traffic areas, making them more susceptible to vehicle-related air pollution.