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Bob Martineau on How Our Planet’s Wellness Impacts Our Own

A Conversation with Environmental Affairs Guru Bob Martineau

Bob Martineau, JD, you have a remarkable career — all dedicated to environmental issues and health. You’ve been the Commissioner of Environment and Conservation in Tennessee Governor’s Bill Haslam’s administration; during that time, you also served as President of the Environmental Council of the States, the group that unites commissioners from environmental agencies for all 50 US states. You’ve led the environmental practice group at one of the Southeast’s leading law firms; you were an attorney at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and you have even co-edited the Clean Air Act Handbook.

Now you have brought your ideas and expertise to Finn Partners to focus your energies on communications for the environment, health, energy, and sustainability. Servant to the nation, advisor to major corporations, teacher and public advocate. Let’s talk about the environment and health. I think the two topics are inseparable.

Bashe: Our world has been struggling with one of the greatest public health crises of our generation. I sense that this period has sensitized us to something even bigger — a threat to our planet. COVID-19 was in our face. Its immediacy was palpable. Yet, I wonder if you agree that climate change and environmental degradation are far greater danger to our way of life. What do you think — is environmental health the great public health uniter?

Martineau: Gil, that is a great question and one I’ve thought about a lot during the last 16 months as we’ve dealt with the pandemic. How can we take the incredible focus and attention we’ve given to COVID 19 and translate it to meeting the climate challenge together? The impacts of COVID were real and immediate — we all know people who lost their lives or became very sick. Climate and environmental degradation pose a greater danger, but the adverse impacts are more incremental and harder to see. We live in a snapchat world of 30 second messaging. It’s hard to have that same sense of urgency when the degradation and impacts are more incremental and long term. But communicating the seriousness of the issue from a public health perspective could be the great uniter.

Bashe: I’ve often said that communication is part of the care. But, during COVID-19, I felt it was part of the problem — the pandemic of poor communications. Are communicators doing enough to rally corporate leaders — policy officials — to recognize that there is no going back when it comes to environmental health?

Martineau: Effective communication can certainly make a huge impact. During COVID, too much of the messaging was to and from corporate leaders and policy officials — urging companies to send everyone home, suspend large group gatherings, convincing people to take protective measures and get the vaccine when it became available. 

Photo Credit: By EtiAmmos — Shutterstock

Successful communication must be three-part process:

1. Create an effective message

2. Make sure people are willing to listen

3. Make sure those who are listening are willing to respond.

As we saw with the pandemic, some public officials and other leaders who refused to accept good science, made the issue political and created their own set of “facts” because they did not trust the messenger. A significant percentage of the population still believes that the pandemic response was a political tool to control behavior, not a public health initiative. We need to find different ways to communicate with people the importance of critical public health issues and depoliticize them. We need to find better messengers — be they ministers in the pulpit, trusted sports heroes or a favorite music legend.

Bashe: Just like science moved mountains to shift molecules from lab benches into jabs in people’s arms, people may expect miracles to tackle our environmental challenges. How can law makers create policies to get us in the right direction — to accelerate innovation?

Martineau: We must create urgency.

Most human beings and government institutions are risk avoiders — we fear the unknown and stick with what we know. So, we need to create that sense of urgency in order to accelerate innovation. A few examples: offer tax breaks for innovative solutions to those things adversely impacting public health; incubate startup companies working on new solutions to old problems; and enlist research labs in our universities to stimulate innovation.

We have to communicate how climate change can interfere with our daily lives. We saw such an incredible response to COVID for two main reasons:

1. It changed our way of life overnight — travel shut down, restaurants closed, our personal and work life turned upside down

2. We saw people dying in large numbers every day. The impacts were real and immediate. Other public health issues are more incremental on both fronts. The changes to how we live will be more incremental and the loss of life or other health impacts more incremental.

Bashe: Some suggest that we have a ticking clock — a ticking that grows louder and louder — on the count-down to environmental danger where things will spiral out of control. How do voices of influence within the health ecosystem join others to ensure companies make sustainability both a requirement and a business builder?

Martineau: I agree the clock is ticking and growing louder because in the past few years, at least in the US, we detoured from addressing environmental and public health issues. But we can get where we need to be before we spiral out of control. Prominent voices in the health ecosystem can be a major force for change. The health sector can influence both the public and private sector behavior.

Leaders in health care world must raise their voices and support measures to mitigate the dangers. The health care industry has enormous power it can bring to bear in shaping forward thinking in the political arena.

The health care sector has enormous economic leverage it can use to shape private sector behavior towards more sustainable business models. ESG (Environment, Social, and Governance) principles are all about risk management. The health sector can embrace ESG itself and it can demand it from its supplier partners. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it also makes good business sense. An increasing body of data shows that corporations that do well on ESG measures are doing better financially. Companies with good performance on ESG issues also have higher employee engagement. Younger employees want to work for socially responsible companies. Customers also can and should expect it from their vendors.

Bashe: How can people responsible for public health and wellness communicate the implications of what we face without scaring the life out of people or having them tune out? What are the paths to getting people to understand communities can affect change?

Martineau: Again, COVID-19 has given us a reality check that these issues are real, but solvable. We cannot just scare people or say our whole lifestyle must change. Instead, we should identify solutions that seem doable and will not completely turn our lifestyle on its head. We can address the carbon impacts of transportation without making everyone ride their bike to work. Innovation will make solutions appear feasible and spur adaption. A decade ago, who would have imagined General Motors pledging to make only electric vehicles by 2035. And yet, here we are.

Bashe: Doctors lost the ears of our nation when it comes to COVID-19. Who are the voices of influence when it comes to the environment? Who do you listen to closely to inform your opinions?

Martineau: Doctors may have lost about 40% of the nation on the issue, but many of us took it very seriously. And a lot of that 40% was due to politics, not science. In the environmental world, there are several sources for information. The EPA is once again relying on data and science to shape policy. NGOs like the Natural Resources Defense Council take a pragmatic approach to environmental regulatory programs and collaborate with industry and government policy makers. I have great respect for Gina McCarthy, now the White House lead on climate. I got to work with her on a wide variety of issues when she was EPA Administrator. She is willing to listen and is smart, savvy, passionate and pragmatic. More and more businesses are becoming proactive on environment and sustainability issues and taking the long view of what is good for business.

Bashe: The socially conscious investor is screening for sustainability according to Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) criteria. Health companies rely on communications to help them report ESG compliance. What is meaningful reporting for health enterprises such as hospital and pharmaceutical companies?

Martineau: Health care companies have a special role in ESG reporting, especially the “E.” As an industry whose very purpose is to protect public health and promote wellness, health companies must analyze their ESG performance. We used to think that the manufacturing, chemical, and utility sectors were the only ones with environmental issues. Yet hospitals operate 24/7/365 and use substantial electricity and water. Moving to energy efficient lighting, HVAC systems and equipment can help reduce carbon impact. Water saving measures can reduce water usage. The handling of medical waste can be an important metric.

Today’s ESG metrics will also look at supply network performance. Health care companies need to analyze their supplier network just like the auto industry does. Companies need to establish their baseline, determine where they need to be, set goals, and demonstrate progress with verifiable information. First and foremost, the ESG commitment must be central to the business culture. It cannot be a “check the box” item. It must be real to have impact.

Bashe: We can expect Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance to move from the corporate to non-profit/public spheres. We tend to look at growth and profit as the measure of business success. With our world in the balance, do you think we need an environmental impact ranking and health metrics?

Martineau: Environmental impact and health metrics are emerging. Some of the metrics being used in ESG reporting go to environmental impact, less so to health metrics. Beyond the direct operations of a business, be it a hospital or manufacturing plant, how do you fully assess the full environmental impacts of a business? From the operations of the supplier to the transportation used to get the supplies to you and your product to your customer, to the waste generated after the use of your product, it’s complicated. We must uncomplicate it. Relative to health metrics, you can look at everything from the health impacts of the products you produce to whether you provide health benefits to your employees. The challenge is to come up with a uniform set of metrics to enable fair comparisons. Many companies are asking for just that and all must find their path to improve.

Health is both an industry and a collective mindset.

The clock is ticking on creating a healthy, sustainable planet. This conversation with environmental affairs expert Bob Martineau frames the urgency and possibilities going forward. Health is both an industry and a collective mindset. While we work to invent new life-saving molecules against disease, we must dedicate ourselves to invention — new policies and technologies — that lead to the health of our planet. This interview can begin to frame our thinking.

Gil Bashe, Medika Life Editor
Gil Bashe, Medika Life Editor
Health advocate connecting the dots to transform biopharma, digital health and healthcare innovation | Managing Partner, Chair Global Health FINN Partners | MM&M Top 50 Health Influencer | Top 10 Innovation Catalyst. Gil is Medika Life editor-in-chief and an author for the platform’s EcoHealth and Health Opinion and Policy sections. Gil also hosts the HealthcareNOW Radio show Healthunabashed, writes for Health Tech World, and is a member of the BeingWell team on Medium.

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