Overview

Two of society’s biggest challenges in the year 2020 – the COVID-19 pandemic and systemic racism – have dominated news cycles and social media. Nonetheless, climate change is an escalating threat and is interwoven with these other challenges.

After carbon dioxide emissions briefly dipped during the COVID-19 lockdown period (suggesting progress on climate change), emissions then “rebounded to within 5% of mean 2019 levels… in early June as countries lifted or weakened their confinement policies.” Persistent and permanent action is needed to bring emissions back down.

Here, we summarize how the climate crisis intersects with issues in public health and racial justice, and we offer examples of how businesses can help to address all of these issues through corporate responsibility strategies.

Flattening the Climate Curve

Much of the discussion on containing COVID-19 has involved “flattening the curve,” i.e., taking actions that prevent the number of new cases from growing each day, in order to avoid overloading the healthcare system. A similar concept applies to climate change: if we follow a sufficient carbon budget (approaching net-zero or net-negative emissions), we can dodge the worst-case scenarios in terms of warming and associated disasters (e.g., severe storms).

Climate Change, Human Health, and Racial Justice

The connections between climate change and human health extend beyond the analogous ideas of flattening curves. Specifically, the CDC explains that health risks associated with climate change may include “respiratory and cardiovascular disease, injuries and premature deaths related to extreme weather events, changes in the prevalence and geographical distribution of food- and water-borne illnesses and other infectious diseases, and threats to mental health.”

Importantly, these risks are not distributed equally across all members of society. Rather, low-income communities and people of color frequently bear the brunt of climate impacts. In the short term, these communities suffer disproportionately from diseases associated with poor air quality due to fossil fuel combustion (e.g., asthma in Black children), and in the long term, these communities are more likely to suffer from health problems associated with increased temperatures due to climate change (e.g., stillbirths, particularly for Black mothers). Furthermore, attempts at climate change mitigation may fail to solve problems pertaining to justice. For instance, businesses may purchase offset credits, aimed at canceling out greenhouse gas emissions by supporting forestry and other projects that sequester carbon, but often these projects occur in separate locations from the communities in which the businesses are polluting (again, often low-income neighborhoods with high proportions of people of color). In other words, the individuals who most directly suffer from pollution as a negative externality may be far removed from the benefits of the offset projects.

What Can Businesses Do?

Although many corporations released statements in support of racial justice after the death of George Floyd, good intentions are not enough – organizations cannot create meaningful change by simply expressing their supportive views towards the issues of racial justice, public health, or sustainability. They must also demonstrate that they back up these views through concrete actions that promote a healthy environment for people who have been historically excluded and disadvantaged.

To start, a relatively straightforward strategy for shrinking an organization’s carbon footprint (thus, helping to flatten the climate curve) is to allow employees to work remotely, rather than commuting. Indeed, remote work is likely to remain popular after the pandemic is over, since companies have already invested in the necessary technologies (which, as a side-note, have the potential to increase productivity and profit). Of course, not all types of businesses can function remotely, yet they may still be able to reduce emissions to some extent by encouraging employees to walk or take mass transit, as Greyston Bakery does. Unlike purchasing offsets, which essentially provide an excuse for businesses to continue polluting disadvantaged areas, these approaches actually cut pollution. 

Organizations should also be conscious and transparent about sustainability and justice in their supply chains. Even if a business has managed to reduce its own direct emissions, its suppliers (or its suppliers’ suppliers) may continue to engage in behaviors that contribute to climate change (e.g., deforestation by the palm oil industry; forced or unsafe labor in the apparel industry). Businesses should analyze their supply chains for such behaviors and commit to working only with suppliers that comply with sustainability standards. Additionally, businesses should seek to increase representation and pay of Black-owned suppliers, as Apple has pledged to do through its recently launched Racial Equity and Justice Initiative. 

Third Partners can help your organization identify and implement strategies that support the interconnected goals of sustainability, health, and justice – please feel free to contact us for a free consultation.