The Inequitable Price of a Changing Planet

In a DGHI panel, environmental scientists note that the communities suffering the biggest health impacts from climate change and environmental damage aren't the ones creating it.

Watch the full Think Global event on health and environmental justice.

By Alicia Banks

Published November 30, 2023, last updated on December 1, 2023 under Around DGHI

In two Los Angeles neighborhoods separated by less than a city block, life expectancy differs by nearly a decade. What’s the difference? One neighborhood is bordered by a busy highway and a polluted river; the other sits alongside a park. 

Cavin Ward-Caviness, Ph.D., a senior scientist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, used the disparity to illustrate how where you live can significantly influence your health. . 

“It’s the environment,” he said. “You have a variety of air pollution from traffic, wildfires and even biogenic emissions [where] communities experience the most severe effects [of the environment].”

Ward-Caviness shared the example during a Think Global event at the Duke Global Health Institute titled “Clearing the Air (And Water): Environmental Justice and Health.” Panelists discussed the world’s changing environment, and who is paying the price for the shift. Research shows many marginalized communities with minority populations and low socioeconomic power bear the burden of those effects. Mercedes Bravo, Ph.D., an assistant research professor of global health at DGHI, moderated the discussion.

In Sri Lanka, chronic kidney disease has risen among farmers who grow rice across the island. Nishad Jayasundara, Ph.D., the Juli Plant Grainger Assistant Professor of Global Environmental Health at the Nicholas School of the Environment, said dehydration and contaminated water are factors in the rise of the unknown disease, which has been reported in other hot climates, including Nicaragua, India and South Africa.

 Jayasundara is working with an interdisciplinary team and locals in affected communities to understand the disease’s causes and prevent others from harm. He said their research shows children from ages 8 to 16 are showing signs of kidney damage. 

“They are seeing the effects of climate change from an industrialized world,” noted Jayasundara, who also has an appointment with DGHI. “These are communities trying to feed the rest of the world, and they’re being impacted by the lifestyle of trying to provide.” 

Kay Jowers, Ph.D., director of Just Environments at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability and the Kenan Institute for Ethics, said her team works with community members, academics and policymakers to understand how to redress the downstream effects communities are experiencing. 

“We invest in deep, collaborative relationships that require long-term commitment and engagement because of the complexity of some of the issues,” she said. “We do work that is policy relevant to further justice.”

Other panelists agreed that researchers need to go beyond just documenting the health impacts of environmental change if they hope to protect people from harm. Ward-Caviness noted scientists should do away with “just” visiting communities to collect data. He said communities deserve to know about the problems in their neighborhoods and have a voice in the research conducted where they live. 

“It lets people empower themselves with that information,” says Ward-Caviness. “It can tip a community out of a health status they can avoid.” 

Bravo closed the discussion by reminding attendees that policy debates too often create a false choice between protecting the environment or promoting economic growth. She said she hoped future conversations will recognize the interdependence of the environment and the economy, and that taking action to protect communities from environmental effects will ultimately help, not harm, their economic prospects.