How do rising temperatures disproportionately impact children, the elderly and the sick? What are the impacts of growing exposure to air pollution caused by the combustion of fossil fuels and what populations are more likely to be impacted? How are changing weather patterns impacting the health and safety of the vulnerable? What is the role of faith in addressing the climate crises?

These are the questions we asked of the panelists at our Community Meeting, “Effect of the Environmental Crisis on the Poor and the Vulnerable.”

Rising heat will cause more medical challenges, increasing pollen, water-borne illness, food illness, post-traumatic stress disorder from devastating weather events, heatstroke, and mental illness. The social factors will be enormous with people displaced from drought, impacts of agriculture, and extreme weather. Rising temperatures may also make bacteria more resistant to antibiotics, increasing the severity of infectious diseases.

The neighborhoods with the least access to green space that feeds our planet and our mental health, to healthy foods that are good for our planet and our bodies, and to public transportation that reduces emissions and increases economic mobility are our poorest neighborhoods. Climate change, health, and vulnerability are interconnected. Our young, our elderly, and our poor suffer the greatest harm from climate change.

This is according to our panelists:

  • Aaron Bernstein MD, moderator, MPH Co-Director of C-CHANGE (Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Pediatric Hospitalist, Boston Children’s Hospital
  • William G. Kaelin Jr., MD, Nobel Laureate, Sidney Farber Professor of Medicine, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, 2019 Nobel Prize recipient in physiology or medicine
  • Renee N. Salas, MD, MPH, MS, Clinical Instructor of Emergency Medicine at Harvard Medical School and an emergency medicine physician at the Massachusetts General Hospital

“As a doctor, there is nothing harder for me than having a patient in front of me that I don’t have a treatment for. But we have the treatment for this,” said Dr. Salas, kicking off the conversation. She went on to discuss her own faith as a Christian and the mandates that she be a good steward of the earth and care for the less fortunate. She says that is what drove her to be a doctor and what drives her to try to make an impact of the climate crisis: “to make a difference, to care for the earth and the less fortunate, I had to go upstream.”

Also addressing the role of faith in the climate crisis, Dr. Bernstein commented that “faith is an important part of this conversation; empathy is embedded in most religions in the world. We empathize with those who can’t protect themselves from the harms of climate change.”

In discussing those who feel we don’t need to act because there are some who don’t believe in climate change, Bernstein used an anecdote about treating a sick child. If we were 90% sure a child had a curable illness, we wouldn’t risk not treating the child because there was a 10% chance we were wrong. The same thinking should be applied to the climate crisis.

“We need to look at the planet as a patient,” he said.

Dr. Kalein discussed in detail frustrations that the scientific community is being ignored and called on financial institutions to demonstrate leadership: “the free markets will need to come to the rescue,” he said. He also called on politicians to respect and believe the scientific community, and encouraged individuals to make their voices heard with their votes.

“The best antidote to climate despair is climate action,” he said.

After the panel discussion, attendees were asked to discuss at their tables their ideas about how they, as individuals, can put their faiths into action to impact the devastation caused to others by the climate crisis. Below is a list of the ideas shared both by the panelists and by the attendees:

  • Challenge your social structures – educate yourself on the facts and don’t be afraid to share your thoughts and beliefs about climate change
  • Participate in the Environmental Voter Project
  • Vote for enlightened leaders and encourage others to do so as well
  • Ride your bike or take public transportation more frequently
  • Put a human face on climate change so that non-believers see how it is impacting the poor and vulnerable
  • Eat less red meat
  • Raise climate conscious children
  • Lead by example
  • Minimize the use of plastic.
  • Consider supporting a carbon tax on individuals
  • Include everyone in the climate change discussion, including those who would lose jobs
  • Make environmentally friendly choices even though they may be more expensive or less convenient
  • Encourage policymakers to ensure that consumer protection regulatory agencies play a role in changing consumer habits
  • Encourage and support organized medicine in combating this problem
  • Encourage organized religion to embrace the problem and advocate on behalf of the poor and vulnerable
  • Encourage the financial system to make socially responsible investments.
  • Focus on depolarizing it in order to get cooperative action.
  • Publicize local organizations and the specific issues of environmental justice that they are working on
  • Promote, encourage and support organizations that are working on larger environmental issues with broad impact such as public transportation, recycling, housing, etc.
  • Support those who are working for a safer environment

We hope you can take these ideas and put your faith into action to reduce the impacts of climate change and help the poor and vulnerable who are most impacted.

You can watch the full conversation here.