Feature Stories


Deborah Fleischer, October 2020


Climate Justice: UCSF Connects Climate Change, Health, and Environmental Justice

The link between climate change and health is not a new theme for UCSF. Earlier this year UCSF Magazine ran a story titled “The Climate Crisis is a Health Crisis: Medicine must reckon with the coming catastrophe,” and the 2016 Climate Changes Health poster campaign highlighted the link between climate change and health impacts such as premature births, exacerbations of asthma, psychological strife, and increases in hospitalizations for vulnerable populations such as the elderly and youth.

An emerging theme at the intersection of climate change, health, and environmental justice is climate justice. According to Bending the Curve, climate justice is a subset of global justice, which places an ethical imperative on the most advantaged populations to improve the conditions of the least advantaged. Climate justice acknowledges that climate change often has disproportionate effects on marginalized and underserved communities. Earlier in the summer, Yale Climate Connections highlighted three aspects of climate justice:

  1. Climate justice begins with recognizing key groups are differently affected by climate change.
  2. Climate impacts can exacerbate inequitable social conditions.
  3. Momentum is building for climate justice solutions.

Climate Justice at UCSF

UCSF’s Office of Sustainability has identified climate justice as a core theme for this fiscal year. Dr. Gina Solomon, MD, MPH, UCSF Clinical Professor of Medicine, is coauthor of “Tracking Environmental and Health Disparities to Strengthen Resilience Before the Next Crisis” and the chapter on climate justice in Bending the Curve. She explained, “The UCSF community is active on social justice issues, and it is important to remember that climate and environmental justice are key parts of social justice.” She points out that several cities in the Bay Area, including West Oakland, Richmond, and Pittsburg, have major sources of pollution next to low-income communities of color. Solomon emphasizes that people of color are more likely to live near areas of industrial pollution, which is linked to cancer and lung and heart disease.

Gail Lee, Director of the Office of Sustainability, explained, “One of my goals is to build awareness of the connections between health, climate change, and environmental justice. Ultimately, it is about mobilizing the UCSF community to take action on climate change.”

Throw COVID-19 into the picture, and it shines a light on the need for action to resolve core systemic inequities. Solomon stressed, “The COVID-19 pandemic is intimately related to environmental justice. A study out of Harvard found that death rates from SARS-CoV2 are far higher in areas with higher levels of air pollution, even when controlling for population density. We already know that air pollution tends to be worse in areas where low-income people of color live, and we know that air pollution damages both respiratory and cardiac function, both short-term and long-term.”

The following are some of the ways UCSF is working on climate justice and social equity:

  • UCSF recently created the UCSF Center for Climate and Health, whose mission includes making “health and equity impacts of climate change evident, urgent, and actionable.” The new center will convene a transdisciplinary community of practice to advance transformative climate-health solutions.
  • The UCSF Environmental Research and Translation for Health (EaRTH) Center is transforming the approach to studying harmful environmental pollutants that undermine health and human development and contribute to chronic disease. The Health Sciences Facility Core supports researchers by providing access to the latest and most robust understanding of chemical exposures and health effects.
  • UCSF continues to integrate climate change into its School of Medicine and School of Pharmacy curricula. Dr. Solomon recently took a group of nine UCSF residents to the West Contra Costa Sanitary Landfill to learn about occupational and environmental health challenges.
  • As an Anchor Institution, under the guidance of the Chancellor, UCSF is committed to working with the community to leverage its $7 billion operating budget to improve the health of the city’s underserved and under-resourced communities and to promote health equity.
  • Three of UCSF’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative (CNI) fellowships are integrating environmental justice into their projects.
  • UCSF’s goal to be carbon neutral by 2025 will contribute to cleaner air quality in San Francisco and be an example that bold climate action can be achieved.

Take Action

  1. Become a climate and health activist. Sign the “Climate Health Now” open letter from America’s current and future doctors and nurses to patients about the threat that climate change poses to their health and the urgent need for leaders who will protect our climate and our health. The letter is non-partisan and does not support particular candidates. It must be signed by October 4.
  2. Vote for the Earth. Vote Earth is a helpful resource for learning how your vote can create a more sustainable world. Read “Climate, Health and Equity: A dozen questions every candidate must answer,” co-authored by Linda Rudolph, MD, MPH, and the Director of the Center for Climate Change and Health at the Public Health Institute (PHI).
  3. Educate yourself. Here are several ways to learn more:

Image: Markus Spiske on Unsplash.
Story by Green Impact