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The climate crisis is a human health crisis. Here’s how we solve it.

The private sector must take greater responsibility—and lobby the government for support

The climate crisis is a human health crisis. Here’s how we solve it.

In an unprecedented joint editorial in September, more than 200 medical journals called a potential 1.5-degree (Celsius) rise above the pre-industrial average temperature the “greatest threat to global public health.” Nearly two years into a deadly pandemic, that’s quite a statement.

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And yet it appears more than justified. Rising temperatures increase heat-related deaths, skin cancers, and pregnancy complications, and have deleterious effects on mental health. Higher temperatures can also affect the spread and transmission of disease, such as dengue fever, for instance, as dengue mosquitoes reproduce more quickly and bite more frequently in hotter climates. Further, depressed crop yields lead to malnutrition, and environmental destruction makes pandemics more likely. “The climate change impact [on health] is extremely significant,” says Christophe Weber, CEO of Takeda Pharmaceutical Company. “Infectious disease, water scarcity—many things can be linked to climate change.”

To better understand climate change as a human health crisis and how the private sector should respond to it, Takeda sponsored a virtual panel during Fast Company‘s recent Innovation Festival. Among the topics discussed were the nature of the threat posed by climate change and what it takes to curb it. Here are some key takeaways from the event, along with additional insights gained subsequent to the discussion.

CLIMATE CHANGE IS ABOUT MORE THAN WEATHER

Aron Cramer, president and CEO of global nonprofit business network and consultancy BSR, believes a reckoning with the human health consequences of climate change is past due in the popular consciousness. “I think those of us who work on climate change have actually made a mistake by not focusing more on the health and well-being impacts of climate,” he says. Cramer cites toxic air in California and floods in New York, China, and Germany as just a few recent examples of climate change impacting human health.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the inequities and political dysfunction that hinder our ability to tackle global health crises. “It exposed our physical vulnerabilities to this health epidemic,” says Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines. “And it’s exposed the vulnerabilities of society.”

When your goal is to protect everyone on the planet, there’s no room for half measures. And that means corporations have an active role to play. “Individual actions are not sufficient because carbon emissions, for example, are driven by businesses and by the economy,” Weber says.

To that end, Takeda is not only working to reduce its own carbon footprint, but also is pressuring partners to follow suit. The company is encouraging its suppliers to reduce their waste, carbon footprint, and water usage. Takeda achieved carbon neutrality in its value chain in 2020 by conserving energy internally, procuring green energy, and investing in renewable energy certificates and verified carbon offsets—projects that support wind- and solar-energy use, clean water availability, forest conservation, and biodiversity preservation efforts around the globe. “Companies like ours are quite pivotal because we have our own activities, but we have also a large group of suppliers and customers,” Weber says. “And our role also is to engage them on this agenda.”

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SUSTAINABILITY AS AN OPPORTUNITY

Delta is well versed in tackling sustainability issues. Its first step to target carbon neutrality was a 10-year, $1 billion investment to kickstart the company on a more sustainable path. But achieving long-term neutrality in aviation will require technological innovation. “Ninety-eight percent of our carbon footprint is jet fuel,” Bastian says. “And unfortunately, we don’t have a great alternative to flying our planes on anything other than jet fuel.”

While efforts are underway to create sustainable aviation fuels, they’re not available in the quantity—or at a price—that would serve a firm as large as Delta. (In fact, Bastian says that acquiring all of the sustainable aviation fuel production in the U.S. would give the company enough to fly its planes for one day.) This is a quandary faced by many in the private sector: Taking on big costs to find more sustainable ways of doing business poses huge financial risks. In those situations, government can play a key role in subsidizing and incentivizing corporate sustainability. Because as ambitious as many sustainability initiatives are right now, they’re stepping stones to even more meaningful goals.

Even with government action, ratcheting up sustainability goals is difficult when companies see it as a cost. The key is to instead see sustainability as a crucial path toward growth and, ultimately, a company’s longevity. “You can’t think of climate as an environmental issue extraneous to business,” BSR’s Cramer says. “This is as much of a business issue as is marketing, as is procurement, as is operational excellence. That kind of separation—inside the walls of a company; outside the walls of the company—that’s old thinking.”

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