Does Climate Change Affect Democracy? Panelists Discussed Health Burdens and Migration Trends

Allison Carter
D360 banner in the Rotunda at UVA

As part of the Karsh Institute of Democracy’s multi-day event, Democracy360, the University of Virginia’s Environmental Institute convened experts to discuss two climate change challenges that deeply impact a democratic society.

While not much seems to have changed through the years on the historic Lawn at the University of Virginia, last week experts inside the buildings discussed some of the major crises and challenges facing modern-day society. UVA’s Environmental Institute asked scholars and thought leaders to tackle the role climate change has on both an already-stressed health care system and the movement of global citizens.

panelists sit on stage in the Dome Room of the Rotunda

Climate Change and the Disproportionate Health Burdens

As part of a banner event held by the Karsh Institute of Democracy, Democracy360, the Environmental Institute presented two panel discussions open to the public. The first panel, co-hosted by  UVA Sustainability and iTHRIV, debated appropriate responses and policies given data-driven evidence that climate change is affecting the health of different communities in disproportionate ways.

Moderated by Karen Johnston, professor of neurology at UVA, three members of the UVA Health community brought both their professional experience and their personal passions to the stage in a lively conversation. Ebony Hilton, associate professor of critical care anesthesiology; Irène Mathieu, assistant professor of pediatrics; and Matthew Meyer, associate professor of anesthesiology, detailed how they see the changing environment shaping and ultimately harming health outcomes and what can be done now to lessen the impacts.

The doctors are quick to point out that climate change is affecting some communities more than others.

The question is why?” Dr. Hilton asked. “Why is there a higher death rate for Black people [due to environmental stress]?  America is still widely segregated and so is pollution. If you are a Black middle-class family, you are more likely to have asthma than a white family. Why do we have flooding in certain communities? Which communities in those cities were impacted hardest? It was Black and brown communities. If we don’t take care of the most vulnerable, center them in policy, then it will have an impact on all our lives.”

Dr. Meyer agreed, “The urban heat island effect, where there is a lot of concrete overlapping with health issues, is not subtle. This has happened, it is happening to our people, us, now … not in the future. And it’s coming for all of us eventually. We need to take the science and work with the communities that are hurt.”

The doctors walked through how climate-based stress is showing up in their patients daily. The affects include higher death rates among certain populations, increased respiratory issues, noise pollution stress, changes in fetal development, and mental health issues (particularly in adolescents).

Dr. Mathieu reminded the audience that there is hope. She shared steps we can take today to begin work on finding solutions to these problems.

“[I encourage] coalition building, to think globally and act locally. Go into your own backyard, show up to community meetings, show up to council meetings. Elevate the voices of those affected. Because nobody is voiceless, it’s just a matter of where they are heard.”

panelists sit on stage in the Colonnade Club

Climate Change, Displacement, and Migration

The second panel, co-hosted by UVA’s Humanitarian Collaborative, sought to clarify trends and patterns when it comes to climate-based migration impacts on both the United States and the world at-large.

Moderated by Kirsten Gelsdorf, professor of practice and public policy at UVA, panelists Jonathan Colmer, assistant professor of economics, and David Leblang, professor of politics, were joined onstage by Kayly Ober, senior program officer on Climate, Environment and Conflict at the United States Institute of Peace.

Millions are on the move around the globe. But the panelists agreed that all things considered, most people do not want to, or can’t, leave their homes, even with extreme changes to the environment and their livelihoods.

“We can think about the different kinds of factors that force people to leave their homes, and we can consider what we think we know,” Leblang said.  “Where things get complicated is when we talk about other kinds of drivers [outside of wages] that would cause people to leave their homes. The United Nations tells us that 3.5% of the world’s population lives outside their country of birth. That’s a small number, especially when you look at the headlines today. People are tied to home. What it takes to leave it all behind…is a shock, either due to [climate change], violence or economic incentives. It’s a hard decision to decide to leave.”

The other panelists agreed with Leblang. They encouraged the audience to rethink policy in an effort to support communities where the impacts of climate change are felt.

Speaking from her experience at the Institute of Peace and her work on the Groundswell report, Ober challenged participants to think of ways to halt environmental harm and then allow movement for those who need it.

“The first question is, can we cut emissions? Can we move from fossil fuel intensive energy?” Ober said. “The second question is a little more diffuse: what is equitable and fair? People need sustainable, consistent resources to be able to adapt to the shocks.”

“But what about the trapped populations?” Ober continued. “It takes a lot of resources and networks to move somewhere. If you are poor, you don’t have resources and options available. This is where intervention to facilitate and manage movement matters.”

Colmer brought an important economic lens to the conversation. “We want opportunity of mobility; we want people to have the freedom to move. Trapped populations become a big deal from the mitigation perspective, so we want to have policies that don’t distort the incentives. We want to remove barriers.”

UVA’s Environmental Institute was pleased to provide a platform to catalyze conversations with these experts on two such important topics.

“I am impressed with the years of work and passion all of the panelists and moderators have devoted to these topics,” said Karen McGlathery, director of UVA’s Environmental Institute. “As we think how we can be both great and good at the intersection of environmental change and human well-being, these conversations with multiple perspectives are incredibly important. I look forward to finding more ways to move research on climate impacts on health and mobility to serve communities impacted in Virginia and beyond. I, and the Institute, thank everyone who participated in our panels for setting the stage for continuing conversations and collaborations.”