Public Health Leadership Still Needed in Climate Planning

Mayra Cruz, MPH

Before starting my fellowship at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), I read Mailman School of Public Health’s oath out loud with my 400 fellow graduates. Health is a human right...I will work to ensure that people have the chance to live full and productive lives, free from avoidable disease, injury, and disability and supported in their pursuit of physical, mental, and social well-being. I promised to uphold these words throughout my career and for many years to come.

To me, climate change is the biggest threat we will face as a human race. People will not be able to live full and productive lives if they must contend with polluted air, warmer and longer lasting heat waves, and intensifying storms. The public cannot be supported in their pursuit of physical, mental, and social well-being if they must decide whether or not to evacuate their homes due to rising waters or cannot seek refuge from scorching heat for their children due to high electricity costs. If we do not address the health impacts of climate change and connect that a healthy planet means healthy people, we are failing people everywhere. Without fighting climate change, public health cannot and will not improve.

I thought about this constantly this summer as I worked to create a Net Zero Guidebook that will be utilized by the 101 cities and towns in the MAPC region who aim to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in a holistic manner. I read through countless toolkits, handbooks, and climate action plans to garner best practices to include in my work. While doing my research I noticed that public health was not a priority in relation to climate action planning. I looked at many committees and taskforces that are in charge of planning and without fail did not see someone who was in the health care realm represented. I grew more frustrated as I tried to find plans that addressed the need to improve public health through climate change action, but the plans generally did not explicitly enumerate public health as an outcome or area of improvement. This needs to change. These are missed opportunities to ensure that actions not only reduce emissions, but improve the health of everyone including those most unfairly impacted by climate change.

It is difficult to not connect the need for public health amidst climate action planning while watching the catastrophic effect of Hurricane Harvey on Texas and Louisiana. The majority of my family lives in Houston and has witnessed the devastation brought on by a 1-in-1000 year storm. Sprawling urban development, climate change, and poor city planning all contributed to the destruction of Harvey. Public health leaders will be needed in the recovery process for years to come and can help affected areas rebuild better and smarter. As a field public health identifies vulnerable populations, analyzes the health impacts of initiatives, and works across fields to ensure positive changes to people’s lives. We are a key and crucial player in the fight against climate change. We cannot be forgotten and we must ensure we are included in important conversations taking place all over the country discussing how we aim to fight climate change.

We as public health practitioners are taught that health is a human right for everyone no matter what their sex, race, resident status, or socioeconomic status may be. It is time to also recognize that a healthy planet is a human right as well.

Mayra Cruz is a recent Master of Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences graduate with a Certificate in Climate and Health. She is an advocate for public health and environmental justice within climate change action. She is living in New York City currently, but originally from Houston, TX. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to email her at mcruz.ehs@gmail.com.