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May Day: Connect Health and Social Justice to the Environment

May Day: Connect Health and Social Justice to the Environment

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If you are anticipating covering Southern California's inevitable weather stories this summer -- heat waves, water shortages, wildfires -- consider this: These narratives are health, environment, public policy and economic stories all in one.

Today's Los Angeles Health and Climate Symposium at UCLA brought together a disparate group with a common goal: connect climate change to the low-income communities of Southern California. Keynote speaker Michael Lerner, Ph.D., the founder and president of the California environmental research institute Commonweal, introduced the challenge this way: While climate change is a "life threatening wound at a planetary scale," he said, "the environmentalists here are talking about making common cause with communities where everyday life is a threatening condition."

Richard Jackson, M.D., a professor in UCLA's School of Public Health, says that most physicians are not familiar with the Keeling Curve, which tracks increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This broad data has local consequences, particularly in urban neighborhoods. For instance, the minimum temperature in downtown Los Angeles at night has gone up over 7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1876. The temperature increase has been driven by climate change, but also "built environment" -- the buildings and paving of the city -- which impacts health in major ways. "Place is at the core of health," he said, and this is important to remember in news narratives.

"We human beings are so adaptable, so resilient, that we accept that it must be this way," Jackson said. Our "built environment" is a product of our social policies and our beliefs about our communities. "If we don't change our thinking, our imaginations, we don't construct environments that work for health."

The roads and infrastructure of Los Angeles is a built environment that reflects "a fossil fuel-based economy," says Graciela Geyer, lead organizer at SCOPE, which organizes campaigns to improve economies for low-income communities. As we replace port and refinery jobs, she said, it is important to create "green jobs" that are not only good for the environment, but are well-paid, permanent and have career pathways for low-income communities.

If you are covering drought, Timothy Brick, chair of the Metropolitan Water District, offers support for an unpopular idea: Raise water rates. This is one measure, like increased gas prices, that forces people to think more deeply about their consumption. Climate models show that the Colorado River, which provides water to seven states, will have significantly reduced runoff in the future. Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States, evaporates each year as much water as the city of Los Angeles uses. Increased restrictions have reduced pumping in order to protect natural environments. But local measures, such as water recycling and the use of ground water, were meant to meet growing demand as long as water imports remained constant. "Finding new and innovative ways to save water and educate the public is our number one challenge," Brick says. The water wholesaler recently voted to increase rates 15 percent over this year and next, causing rate increases in many parts of the southland.

Manuel Pastor, Ph.D., director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at USC, closed the symposium with the notion that there are two narratives that need to be abandoned: He disputes that "equity is contrary to growth" and "protecting the environment comes with a high cost." His latest study, "Minding the Climate Gap" (introduced in an article in the Huffington Post), highlights the ways in which the cost of climate change is not distributed evenly. People of color and the poor are more likely to live near industrial complexes with poor environmental records. "In the case of particulate matter, which affects respiratory health, we find that, on average, communities of color face a pollution emission burden that is 70% higher than for whites," Pastor and co-author Rachel Morello-Frosch write.

"Tackling the issues of climate change, climate justice and economic opportunity is going to require everything we have," Pastor said. "Will you stay in the conversation when it gets hard?" he asked participants. Indeed, it's an appropriate questions for journalists as well.

Were you at the symposium or watching it online? Join the community and share your thoughts about the day or similar conversations in your communities.

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