How the Public Health Community is Leading on Climate Change

The American Public Health Association has divested from fossil fuels and named the 2017 ”Year of Climate Change.”

By Adele Houghton and Denise Patel

Source: Pexels

When the international climate negotiation COP23 opened on November 6, the U.S. delegation was sidelined for the first time in international climate negotiations. Following the Trump Administration’s decision to pull out of the Paris Accord and its refusal to fund an official U.S. pavilion at the meeting, state and local governments are stepping in to highlight the continued leadership in the U.S. on climate change at the subnational level. Stateside, the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) annual meeting coincides with COP23 both in terms of timing and topic.

The meeting theme, “Climate Changes Health,” is the culminating event for the APHA “Year of Climate Change and Health,” which has highlighted research and practice on the intersection between climate change and public health topics, such as children, mental health, and natural disasters. More than 100 climate-related sessions were presented this week, sharing the latest on research into the health effects of climate change and best practices for protecting the most vulnerable populations.

APHA has also taken the opportunity to demonstrate that health is the underlying motivation for both reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building resilience.

At the opening session on Sunday, Executive Director Dr. Georges Benjamin announced that APHA has divested all of its fossil fuel investments. As guardians of health and leaders in health policy, APHA’s divestment from fossil fuels represents the kind of bold leadership we need to stem the regressive politics of the Trump administration and address the health impacts of fossil fuels.

Following up on the Lancet Commission’s declaration in 2009 that climate change is the greatest threat to global public health, the Lancet Countdown report recognizes investment in energy efficiency and divestment from fossil fuels as effective measures driving policies to address the health impacts of climate change.

Dr. Benjamin’s announcement was followed by a powerful presentation by Eriel Tchekwie Deranger who threaded the environmental and health injustices faced by indigenous communities through a story of environmental degradation, increased burden of disease, and discrimination against indigenous peoples that touched on every discipline of public health. Deranger’s speech shone a bright light on the impacts of continued fossil fuel extraction on communities, health, and the environment while recognizing the root cause of the climate crisis as our continued dependence on fossil fuels.

Similarly, the keynote presentation by former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy highlighted the importance of integrating public health and environmental sustainability into a unified approach to addressing climate change. The built environment (i.e., buildings and transportation) is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 60 percent of total U.S. emissions according to the EPA. Buildings also protect or fail to protect occupants during climate-related disasters. That’s why APHA chose a LEED-certified facility for the conference.

And, the association is working to ensure attendees act as ambassadors in their communities on the importance of acting on climate issues. Online conference materials demonstrate the tangible climate and health benefits that can result from coordinating climate change action among the green building and public health sectors. By embracing the Year of Climate and Health, APHA has demonstrated how public health professionals can truly put policy into practice. We should all follow their lead.


Adele Houghton and Denise Patel serve on the Climate Change and Health Topic Committee of the APHA.

Houghton is the founder of Biositu, LLC, which uses public health research to inform green building policies and practices.

Patel is the Coordinator of the Divest Invest Network, which calls on institutions and individuals to divest from fossil fuels and invest in climate solutions.