Climate change is an environmental justice issue, experts say

November 15, 2011

Webinar presenters frame threat as a moral issue

Experts believe climate change is contributing to the increasing severity and frequency of extreme weather events around the world, including heat waves, floods and droughts. The young, the elderly and the poor are at particular risk of adverse health consequences related to weather extremes.

And that's a key reason why environmental degradation should be a top concern for the health care community. That was the thrust of "Climate Change: Health Impact and Catholic Mission," a webinar that CHA sponsored in October. The presenters were Stephanie Chalupka, a nurse researcher and environmental health expert; and Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change.

"Climate change is both a moral and a health issue," Chalupka said, "and in fact it may be a greater health care challenge." She is a professor of public health nursing at Worcester State University in Worcester, Mass.

Chalupka and Misleh explained that many scientists believe that greenhouse gases are trapping heat in the atmosphere and causing harmful climate changes and extreme weather events including an increased incidence of top-force hurricanes and tornadoes. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, among such gases that enter the environment through human activity are carbon dioxide, which is released through the burning of fossil fuels and other materials; methane, which is emitted during the production and transportation of fossil fuels; nitrous oxide, which is a by-product of agricultural and industrial activities; and fluorinated gases, synthetic gases that are released through various industrial processes.

To illustrate the health impact of weather extremes, Chalupka pointed toward record heat waves over the last several years. In 2006, temperatures in parts of California reached 100 degrees for two consecutive weeks. People suffered from heat cramps, exhaustion and stroke, said Chalupka. Officials estimate there were 16,000 emergency room visits related to the California heat wave. The death toll was between 150 and 450, said Chalupka, noting that the spread in this range is wide because it can be difficult for authorities to capture such data and to determine the degree to which the heat played a contributing role in each death.

Chalupka said such weather emergencies strain the health care system. And vulnerable populations — including the poor, the elderly, children and the chronically ill — are most at risk. For instance, the poor may not have air conditioning, the elderly and very young and the ill are more susceptible to heat-related illness.

Violent storms carry risk of injury from flying debris and collapsing buildings, but slow-moving weather events also may threaten people's health, she said. For instance, excessive rainfall can lead to standing water, which can promote insect-spread disease including malaria. Conversely, drought conditions can contribute to malnutrition, dehydration and even death, Chalupka said. Air pollution has been linked to adverse birth outcomes for pregnant women and respiratory concerns for children.

"Global climate change threatens (people's) health and well-being, but it's important to understand that it will not affect all of us equally," Chalupka said. "The discriminatory impact that climate change will have on vulnerable populations make climate change one of the most significant environmental justice issues of our times."

She said ministry health care providers are well positioned to advocate for improved environmental policies that reduce pollution and greenhouse gases. Chalupka said that ministry leaders are part of powerful networks of people who can work together for change.

Misleh said the Catholic community is a front-runner in the push for prudent action to improve the environment. He said the Catholic tradition values stewardship of the Earth, and the church's social teaching links environmentalism with the concept of loving one's neighbors and advocating justice for all.

"Climate change is a life issue" for the Catholic church, said Misleh. "This is really important for us, because it talks not just about current life, it's also about future generations."

The Vatican and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have expressed a deep concern for climate change and its impact, and they have said that Catholics and Catholic organizations should unite to promote the protection of the Earth, Misleh noted.

The organization Misleh directs, the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, is a partnership of Catholic organizations supported by the bishops' conference and the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. CHA is part of the coalition. The group is working to influence individuals, organizations and government agencies to reduce environmental harm.

Misleh said polls show that Catholics are very engaged in environmentalism, they see the value of environmental stewardship, and they are willing to act.

That's why, when confronting the global health threat that is linked to climate change, Catholics can remain optimistic, Misleh said.

Catholic Coalition on Climate Change

Main coalition partners

  • United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
  • National Religious Partnership for the Environment

Other partnering organizations

  • Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities
  • Carmelite NGO
  • Catholic Charities USA
  • CHA
  • Catholic Relief Services
  • Conference of Major Superiors of Men
  • Franciscan Action Network
  • Leadership Conference of Women Religious
  • National Catholic Rural Life Conference
  • National Council of Catholic Women


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.