This exclusive to Medika Life is the first in a two-part series on the intersection between public health and planetary health. The conversation was part of the Global Action Summit hosted by the Belmont University Massey School of Business (December 7-8, 2021). The pressing discussion, moderated by environment and social impact expert Bob Martineau, focused on how we can change the direction of our planetary health for a sustainable future and major trends in the food, health, and economic sectors.
Four outstanding thought leaders joined in conversation:
Bob Martineau, JD, a Senior Partner with FINN Partners, a global integrated marketing communications agency, who heads the Environment and Social Impact Group, and the former Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation, served as moderator.
James Hildreth, MD, President and Chief Executive Officer of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, the nation’s largest private, independent and historically black academic health sciences center. Dr. Hildreth is also a member of President Biden’s Health Equity Task Force.
Rachel Hodgdon, CEO and President of the International WELL Building Institute. Rachel joined IWBI in November 2016, bringing her broad sustainability expertise and her track record as a leading global advocate for green schools, better buildings and social equity to IWBI’s work to advance human health through more vibrant communities and stronger organizations.
Gil Bashe, Chair Global Health and Purpose at FINN Partners. He currently serves as editor-in-chief of MedikaLife, an online health magazine, and is a global correspondent for Health Tech World. He is also an ordained rabbi who is exploring how spiritual strength is a moral compass in addressing many of the world population’s most pressing physical needs.
Bob Martineau: I am pleased to convene this important discussion on the intersection of public health and environmental health or planetary health. Thank you all for your participation. The World Health Organization issued a report highlighting the connection between public health and climate change. The report estimates that 250,000 additional premature deaths each year globally are from climate change and without sustained rapid change, the report said these numbers will only increase. Rachel, I’ll start with you. Can you share your thoughts on this report and what it tells us about public health and the environment?
Rachel Hodgdon/IWBI: I think that the most important headline in that report is that we’re in a code red moment right now. Some might say that we are running out of time, others say that we have run out of time to experience some of the more dramatic impacts of climate change. I think the other principal findings of that report, and many of the conversations between global leaders that have happened since, is that we’re not on track to meet our targets.
This is a call to all of us to act. It is a call that is so urgent that it threatens our livelihood and the livelihoods of future generations. This means that all of us need to become advocates for making change and all of us need to start making choices about what we invest in, where we shop and what companies and communities, we align ourselves with based on this fundamental imperative to address the climate crisis. What we’re seeing is a real response to that sense of urgency from younger generations.
We’re starting to see some of the policy levers turn the way that they should in the United States and in other economies. You could say that we’re driving slower off the cliff, and we’ve got to focus on more opportunities to take carbon out of the atmosphere, put it back into the soil, put it back into the land, and not just focus on slowing down what is essentially a collision course with our own humanity.
Dr. Hildreth/Meharry: I would just add that the Earth can do just fine without humans on it. There are species that have been around for 2 billion years. There are plants that have been around for hundreds of millions of years. My point is that if we’re not careful, the Earth will get rid of us as a pest, so to speak, because we’re not necessary for the survival of the Earth itself. If we’re not careful, it’s going to take steps to rid itself of a species.
The pandemic reminds us that as we move into habitats, we have not been a part of, and as we destroy habitats, that brings us into contact with animals that have pathogens that can be deadly to us. So, that’s just another example of the kind of recklessness that we’re demonstrating by doing some of the things that we’re doing without being mindful of what it does to the earth and to the other species that inhabit it. I totally agree with everything that Rachel said.
Gil Bashe/FINN: I’m going to be an optimist here. I think it’s important. I’ve learned that from Rachel and from Dr. Hildreth; people enjoy positive messages, and I think that they’ve laid out the cause for alarm. I want to quote a 19th century mystic, for a moment, not a scientist, not an economist, a mystic, who said, simply, if you can break it, you can fix it. I think that through all of the doom and gloom, Bob, you have expressed before your belief that human ingenuity, science, engineering and creativity do give us the ability to fix some of these problems. So, I am going to believe that as well. I’m going to also draw from what we’ve just heard from Rachel and Dr. Hildreth, which is we’ve got to engage. I’ve learned this certainly from following both of our other panelists, that sometimes to learn, we must unlearn certain behaviors.
Rachel Hodgdon/IWBI: I totally agree with Gil, I am also an eternal optimist, and I do fundamentally believe that there are ways for us to really get ourselves out of the mess that we’ve created. But I also think that one of the challenges with climate change is that it has seemed to be a topic that’s so far off, that’s so huge, that we as individuals can’t make a difference. We think, yeah, we can solve it, but that’s somebody else’s job. That’s the job of elected and appointed officials. That’s the job of large corporations. So, I think that more than anything, the report that you mentioned in the opening is a call to action for all of us, it’s time for us to stop shifting responsibility in the solutions to others.
Bob Martineau: With COVID, we saw the impacts were very immediate and real: a person got exposed, and within days, you saw people got sick. It was easy to connect cause and effect. However, with many public health issues caused by environmental health issues, the latency period is long term. It takes years for the asthma or the respiratory issues to develop. So, people don’t see the direct connection between cause and effect. In addition, if you add that other factor Rachel mentioned – the doomsday effect. That is people saying there’s such a big problem and any change will not make any difference anyway.
So, how do we get that call to action? With COVID, it took a while, but people understood that if they wore masks and got vaccines, they could help mitigate the impact. It was individual behaviors that would change as we tried to reach a herd immunity. So, with these longer-term impacts and the magnitude of the problem and people just throwing up their hands in despair, how do we speak to people to get that action?
Dr. Hildreth/Meharry: One of my biggest concerns is that we can’t ever get out of our own way. If you look at what happened with the COVID-19 pandemic, science delivered, in record time, safe and effective vaccines. Yet, there are those among us who cannot realize that by taking the vaccines they can help the larger community. It is not only a selfish thing to do in terms of protecting yourself, but it also allows us to protect the larger community.
What I worry about is, we cannot see that the things that we do now can benefit those who are going to come after us- we don’t seem to care. It’s the same kind of challenge we have with getting people vaccinated and to do the things you need to do. We have to figure out a way to get past that. Otherwise, we’re not going to solve this problem, climate change, or, in fact be able to deal with the pandemic, which is still ongoing. My biggest concern is, how do we get out of our own way and what do we need to do to have that happen? I haven’t thought of a solution to that yet. I’m hopeful that we can do it.
Rachel Hodgdon/IWBI: I’ll give you a quick list of four and then I will elaborate: (1) You’ve got to make it visual; (2) You’ve got to make it personal; (3) You’ve got to make it actionable; and (4) You have got to make it positive. We have many visual ways to tell the story- the COVID-19 pandemic is one great example; we came face to face with the reality that we drive pollution in our own environment that ultimately accelerates climate change when we all stopped commuting. Also, when we all stopped operating construction equipment and the skies in every major city cleared. That is such an amazing visual. You can do a simple Google and see, you know, Dubai, Los Angeles, any of the world’s major cities before the pandemic and at the height of it.
We also must make it personal. I think one of the biggest regrets that I have about the outset of the pandemic is that we didn’t turn quickly enough to trusted ambassadors, deploying members of communities and spiritual leaders and even celebrities – the people that we know that the public trusts the most, that they can relate to. We need to give people actionable ways to take first steps; we need to lay out a roadmap for the choices that you can make in your own life. It’s less about those performative actions of using your reusable grocery bags or your non plastic reusable water bottles; it’s a lot more about asking people to make bigger choices around how many flights they take per year, or the kinds of cars that they purchase, or even where they vote, or where they vote with their wallet.
Finally, you have to make it positive. We know through decades of research, that negative messaging, particularly around issues of climate can be debilitating and paralyzing. We need to shift these messages from doom, gloom and what we lose to positive messages of abundance and everything that we have to gain.
Gil Bashe/FINN: We said often during the COVID period, that we should trust the science, but I’m going to put a twist on that and maybe make this a little more complex. Can we trust scientists, and do scientists understand the science of communication? Rachel touches on that in her points, and Dr. Hildreth talks about this as well, but the reality is our scientists, the people who really convey information, they’re not trained in public health to talk to the public and to mobilize the public. In fact, scientists can be very inspiring, but the reality is they don’t know how to communicate and that’s one thing we need to begin to fix immediately.
The other aspect is who’s responsible here? So let me take my sector. I think Rachel and Dr. Hildreth will identify with this. Rachel and the International Well Building Institute are doing exceptional work trying to look at how to build a healthier world for the future. Dr. Hildreth at Meharry Medical College is doing a tremendous amount of work and effort to talk about critical public health needs that connect to environmental health. I believe that hospitals occupy about 5% of our commercial space in this country, but they consume about 20% of our energy. So, think about that.
The healthcare sector, which I come from and love, and has done remarkable, miraculous work during the COVID period, to invent vaccines quickly- if it were a country, would rate number five in greenhouse gases, after China, the U.S., India and Russia. Hospitals and health systems would be the fifth largest contributor to greenhouse gases in the world. So, how do we solve this? I’m calling upon the healthcare industry, first and foremost, which is so dedicated to our well-being, to take a stance to do everything possible not to reduce its contribution to climate damage or environmental damage but work diligently with the same creativity and the same science to correct its course.
Bob Martineau: I think that’s a great point. Modeling best practices and moving from just pure sustainability to advancing causes and improvement in public health and in public environment. I think we’ve spent so long focused on treatments to diseases and impacts and less about the causes. If we don’t move to look at those causes more directly, we’ll continue to just treat diseases and that’s a vicious cycle that never ends.
Stay tuned for the second in this two-part series featured exclusively on Medika Life.