Climate, Health and Equity Brief
Dr. Georges Benjamin: Public Health in the Midst of Climate Change
January 31, 2020
Conversations with leaders taking action at the intersection of climate change and public health.
As part of our weekly Climate, Health & Equity Brief, we’re pleased to share the latest in our periodic interview series with leaders working at the intersection of climate change, health and equity. This month we spoke with Dr. Georges Benjamin, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association.
You have made climate change a significant priority for the American Public Health Association (APHA)—why?
We think a lot about the environment because of its impact on health, and it is very clear to us that climate change is already impacting people’s health and wellbeing. This is probably the greatest public health threat we’re going to have for many, many years to come. We have to get our hands around this early—and we are already behind.
How does APHA address health and equity issues that stem from climate change?
Fundamentally, equity and justice are a core part of our thinking about the health and wellbeing of populations; we try to build it into everything we do. We support efforts that help everybody, but few people are going to pay attention to the underserved. Someone has to do it, and we think that’s our job.
Why do public health professionals have such important voices on this issue?
If you are a state or local health officer, you’re the only person in the community that has a legal responsibility for the health in your community. Other people do it because it’s their job, part of their humanity or part of their desire to help their communities and their loved ones—but public health folks have that legal responsibility, in addition to the fundamental desire to help people.
What is your greatest fear when it comes to climate change?
My biggest fear is that we will continue to deny climate change out of ignorance, and because we have people that are dedicated to just ignoring the problem. They’re creating an environment in which people think there’s such a big problem that there’s nothing we can do about it. The truth is, there’s a lot we can do.
Your greatest hope?
Tragically, we’re now seeing lots of climate-related events. It is here today, it’s impacting our health today, and my hope is that we can make it a kitchen-table issue, where the average citizen understands this, and more importantly, that it is understood as a problem we can solve.
What can and should people do to make an impact?
We all should walk more and drive less because it’s not only good for your health but also good for the environment. We should cut the lights off when we leave the room because it conserves energy. And everyone needs to call their elected officials to tell them do something about climate change now.