• Grassroots solutions are being used to tackle climate and health problems in vulnerable communities around the world.
  • Local initiatives in areas such as employment, food waste and exercise are helping communities improve their own health – and that of the planet.
  • Providing people with the tools to collect key data can boost their sense of agency around climate protection and creates ripple effects for local health issues.

Often it is hard to remember that large problems are solved one step at a time. We aim for large strategies, large initiatives, or large mindset shifts. It is by zeroing in on both a problem’s impact and solutions, however, that we begin to establish a real pattern of change.

Addressing the impact climate change has on marginalized communities, for instance, shows how we can begin to tackle a large problem — climate change — with local solutions. While climate change is most definitely a planet problem, no one will dispute that it is also a people problem filled with people-focused solutions. Across the world we can see how local organizations and governments move the needle in addressing their communities’ needs.

We explored the connection between climate justice and health in a roundtable series hosted by my institute, The Rutgers Institute for Corporate Social Innovation, in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. We worked with over a dozen experts, who met to help shine a light on how significant the impact of climate change is on marginalized communities’ health and wellbeing.

Together, we identified four examples of grassroots solutions that support and address the social determinants of health in vulnerable communities:

1. Supporting local jobs and local supply chains

The most successful climate change solutions center the local economy and community. The US city of Newark, New Jersey has created a variety of initiatives to target such aims. For instance, the Newark2020 Initiative is a commitment to hire and place 2,020 Newark residents in work by 2020. The city also helps larger corporations to reduce their carbon footprints by helping them source key materials locally. Corporations with headquarters in Newark have helped move this commitment forward and by doing so have created ripple effects on the health of those in the surrounding communities.

In a similar example in South America, the first green airport has led to a ripple effect of environmental agency within the community. Ecuador’s Galapagos Ecological Airport (formally Seymour Airport) was built in 2012 to run on solar and wind power. The staff, who were hired locally, help promote environmentally conscious initiatives by volunteering to clean up beaches and helping the airport keep its Airport Carbon Accreditation, as well as ISO and LEED certifications. This is all while ensuring that the impact tourism has on the surrounding environment isn’t irreversibly detrimental.

2. Involving locals in data collection

Many community-based initiatives have also found success in involving citizen volunteers in data collection efforts. For example, the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project is a resident-led, community-based environmental justice organization in the US state of California. In 2008, it led a project that distributed handheld devices to community members in partnership with Intel and Common Sense Science. The devices collected air quality data that the organization later helped community members understand in an effort to increase a sense of agency around climate impact as a whole.

Newark has also trialled solutions in this area, working with its citizens to understand the city’s respiratory disease baseline through community health assessments over the past two decades. An estimated 11% of Newark adults currently have asthma (a rate 25% higher than the rest of NJ and the US, due to poor air quality). The city has been working with grassroots organizations via town halls, focus groups, and interviews to collect a wide variety of perspectives as well as to ensure the accuracy of its data.

While access to healthcare or climate-related data will not help eliminate respiratory disease, it can help to encourage health management. This focus on involving local citizens, employees and suppliers is a long-term, easily replicable way to help make an impact on climate and health.

3. Sourcing healthy, local food

Another opportunity for community-led initiatives is to help elevate access to healthier food options, particularly in spaces that historically have been food deserts. With urbanization and gentrification at the forefront of many city plans, it is pivotal to continue to prioritize initiatives that give back to local areas and encourage habits that will help keep community spaces alive for generations. In Southern Florida, Food Rescue US connects social service agencies to grocers (and food donors) like Trader Joe’s in a two-fold effort to reduce food waste and minimize food insecurity within local communities.

In Newark, programs like Adopt-A-Lot encourage residents to grow gardens in vacant city-owned lots, while Newark DIG helps locals find environmentally friendly ways to manage water runoff. These schemes encourage healthier eating by making healthier food more accessible — and by cleaning up the city’s contaminated water and soil.

4. Promoting green spaces and physical activity

Even though Colombia is currently experiencing social unrest, the country’s efforts to offset environmental impact on their most vulnerable communities has been an example to follow.

Colombia’s largest city launched the Bogota Ciclovia in 1976, an initiative to shut down 70 miles of road every Sunday to promote physical activity and reduce automobile emissions. US cities like Brownsville, Texas have followed suit hosting their own versions of the Ciclovia.

A study published by the American Journal of Public Health in 2013 found that initiatives like Ciclovia are “important health promotion interventions” that can address the social and environmental determinants of health-related behaviour on a large scale. These initiatives can have important ripple effects, particularly in poorer communities like Newark, where nearly 40% of the city’s residents are obese and 44% of children are overweight and obese.

While these steps may seem small in the larger push to save the environment, they actually provide a sustainable route to help both the climate and the people living within these communities. As business and community leaders, we can create initiatives that help lessen the impact of climate change on marginalized communities and support a more just climate future.