Natasha DeJarnett, PhD, MPH, is reminded of the importance of environmental justice and health equity whenever she goes home.

DeJarnett, who is deputy director of environmental justice data and evaluation for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, has asthma. Her condition worsens when visiting family who live near air-polluting industries in Birmingham, Alabama — a city where more than two-thirds of residents are Black.

Because of discriminatory policies and practices, Black people and other populations of color are much more likely than white people to live near environmental hazards, DeJarnett, PhD, MPH, said at APHA’s recent Climate, Health and Equity Summit.People walk through a flooded area during a storm

“(My family) is my why, I do this for them,” she said. “I challenge you to lean into the science, acknowledge environmental justice and center your work on your ‘why.’”

The two-day summit, held online last week, brought public health supporters together to talk about building community, advancing collaborative work and crossing disciplines to solve issues impacting climate and health equity. 

“The climate crisis is an issue with far-reaching impacts for public health,” said Katherine Catalano, MS, deputy director of APHA’s Center for Climate, Health and Equity. “To reduce the severity of future health impacts, we need public health advocates with varied backgrounds and experiences to get involved. We want to ensure this spirit of collaboration continues long after the summit is over.”

Topics at the summit included the ways food production, health care and transportation intersect with climate, health, equity and community.

At the national level, the Biden Administration is exploring those intersections through its Justice40 Initiative. Established in 2021, the program is working to ensure that clean energy and water and sustainable housing reach those that need them most. Forty percent of investments made through federal agencies in areas such as lead abatement, sewer improvements and water payment assistance are being directed to vulnerable communities.

In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams has pledged to reduce carbon emissions in the food sector by 33% by 2030, according to Milagros de Hoz, deputy director of policy and strategy for the New York City Mayor’s Office of Food Policy. To help achieve that goal, 11 public hospitals made plant-based meals — which are less damaging to the environment — the default option in their cafeterias. Previously, only 1% of patients had been choosing plant-based meals, de Hoz said. After the switch, 60% of patients were eating plant-based meals.

Summit participants also discussed the U.S. transportation system, its reliance on fossil fuels and need for better public transportation.

Dustin Robertson, PhD, program manager at Smart Growth America, said the system is “designed for cars, designed to move vehicles, not people, and is not conscious of health or climate impacts.” Robertson supports neighborhoods designed with pedestrians, bicyclists, people with disabilities and the environment in mind.
A major theme of the summit was how underserved communities experience greater impacts of extreme weather events driven by climate change. Such crises, such as major hurricane-related flooding in Houston in 2017, disproportionately damage homes and neighborhoods where people of color and those with low incomes live. 
“It’s harder for folks with low income to bounce back,” said E. Benjamin Money Jr., MPH, senior vice president of population health at the National Association of Community Health Centers. 
Photo caption: Houston residents are rescued during flooding from Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Climate change is fueling stronger hurricanes and other weather phenomena. (Photo by Gus Holzer, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)