Climate Change and Human Health: Doubling Down on our Planet’s Greatest Challenge
At scale, human health and planetary health are inextricably linked. What our buildings exhale, we inhale. What our cars exhaust, we breathe in.
After decades of inaction and the reluctance of governments, corporations and individuals to acknowledge the increasingly perilous state of our planet, we find ourselves facing a tipping point. It’s going to take a massive shift in public consciousness to halt the advancement of climate change and to begin the arduous process of mitigation and regeneration.
When I first joined IWBI with Rick Fedrizzi (one of my mentors and now our Executive Chairman), he referred to the work we were stepping into as the ”second wave of sustainability.” Our premise was simple: by putting a human lens atop climate-focused discussions we would be able to activate more hearts and minds and encourage individuals and organizations to change their behaviors.
I often remind myself, though, that intellectual agreement alone is not inspiration to act — we see evidence of this every day. Just because people acknowledge that climate change is real, doesn’t mean that they will take fewer flights or axe their consumption of bottled water.
Much of the marketing around climate change has focused on the theme of scarcity versus abundance. We’ve introduced remote and dismal emblems for our planet’s fragility: polar bears clinging to the last remaining ice floe, arid landscapes starved of the water and resources they need to bear fruit, smokestacks belching toxic fumes.
It’s hard for many of us to be inspired by these fear-laden images. Although fear can be a motivator in some scenarios, when it comes to redirecting our actions, it simply doesn’t have the power to sustain meaningful change and often results in the inverse: paralysis.
We’ve been taught to believe that committing to climate change is all about what we must sacrifice: buying fewer material goods, shivering in our homes to save energy, occupying a smaller footprint, seeing less of the world to burn less fuel.
Some years ago when I was leading the Center for Green Schools we ran a series of focus groups with parents to test out different positioning statements for our consumer campaign, Green Apple. Every one of the messages I thought would resonate most deeply — preventing asthma and protecting your child’s fragile lungs, conserving energy in order to put money back into the classrooms — fell flat because parents felt overwhelmed by yet another thing to worry about. Leading with the negative made parents want to bury their heads in the sand.
The only message that resonated was: “A green school can offer your child that extra opportunity to succeed.”
In order to be effective, climate messages must tap into our intrinsic motivations. It’s our universal aspiration for ourselves to be healthy, for our families to be well, for our businesses and communities to thrive. That’s what moves us to act.
The premise at IWBI is the same. Our call to action pivots on those things that matter most to each of us — thriving in our work, abundance in our lives and sustained health for those we love.
The effect is magnified because we know that there’s a great deal of overlap between what’s good for people and what’s good for the planet. Investing in electrification, selecting low emitting materials and optimizing natural light are climate mitigation and human health strategies. It’s an approach that benefits all of us.
It most positively impacts those who have the least. Improving air quality has an outsized impact in low income communities where residents historically suffer from increased rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases. We only have to look at how last year’s global lockdown caused the skies above Delhi, Beijing and Los Angeles to momentarily clear, resulting in the sudden widespread decline of respiratory illnesses.
We’ve had all the evidence we need to understand that what ails the planet is the same thing that increasingly ails us, and by solving for one we can solve for the other. With this in mind, I recently became the co-chair of the board for Paul Hawken’s new organization to advance regeneration and end the climate crisis in one generation. I’ve also joined the board of Second Nature, a non-profit that accelerates climate action in and through higher education.
By raising mainstream awareness around the need to radically rethink our approach to climate change, we can also raise our ambition for setting bold new targets, not just for slowing the pace of change but for returning trillions of tons of carbon to the atmosphere — a process that’s essential if we are to advance climate action that is positive rather than palliative.
Prioritizing regeneration will require fundamental shifts in our government, education system, and in the foundation of society itself. We can’t afford to procrastinate — the lives of future generations depend upon what we do next.
Rachel Hodgdon is President and CEO of the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), a public benefit corporation and the world’s leading organization focused on deploying people first places to advance a global culture of health.