Climate Change and Climate Justice

Photo of air pollution over a city

Climate change is an emerging challenge linked to negative health  sequelae (chronic conditions). These complications are a result of environmental degradation – deterioration of the environment through depletion of resources such as air, water and soil; the destruction of ecosystems and habitats; the extinction of wildlife; and pollution.

Climate change occurs due to an increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, black carbon, and other pollutants – greenhouse gases. 

Since the 1960s, there has been a growing recognition of the need to address climate change and the impact of greenhouse gas emissions (GGEs) implicated in the warming of our planet.

There are also adverse health outcomes linked to the complex climate changes that are emerging in the 21st century. There are significant health consequences that impact global health – for safety and well-being; nutrition and food security; food-, water-, and vector-borne diseases; and mental health. 
These particularly impact vulnerable and disenfranchised populations.

As Lemery, Williams and Farmer (2014) note regarding climate change and its deleterious impact on our global community:

“The people who will suffer most are those who were most vulnerable to begin with, living in regions of the world with perilous human security, pervasive poverty, little fulfillment of human rights, geographic disadvantage, and contributing the least to greenhouse gas emissions. It is in these places that the threat-multiplying effects of climate change will denigrate human dignity, health, and potential the most. It is in these same disadvantaged settings that fragile health systems are least able to cope with the increased demands they will face” (p. 2).         

Climate change is both a critical global health and environmental health challenge; and the health professions must engage, advocate, and offer leadership to mitigate the health effects on the world’s people, as well as to address adaptation to climate change and climate resilience.

Climate change is well known to adversely affect the social and environmental determinants of health – particularly access to food, clean air, and water.

Nightingale’s (1859) prescient views on the importance of pure air, water, light, drainage, and cleanliness are as important in the 21st century as when her ideas were first introduced in Notes on Nursing over two centuries ago.

Most notably, Nightingale understood that areas with weak health infrastructure and conflict areas were particularly vulnerable to negative health consequences.

Climate Justice

Climate Justice is a term used for framing global warming as an ethical and political issue, rather than one that is purely environmental or physical in nature.

In our contemporary global community, we are witnessing the negative sequelae of the anthropogenic effects – human impact on the environment – of greenhouse gas emissions and resulting global warming. Moreover, as Levy and Patz (2015) note, “climate change—the global climate crisis—may be the defining moral issue of the 21st century” (p. 311).

The Mary Robinson Foundation—Climate Justice has addressed key principles related to the challenge of our changing climate. Mary Robinson, former President of the Republic of Ireland from 1990-1997 and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997-2002, launched global efforts to address the impact of climate change on health, development, and global communities.

The vision of the Mary Robinson Foundation—Climate Justice (MRFCJ) is to engage in a people-centered, developmental approach, the basis for which are global justice and equity, to advance climate justice and effectively address the impact of climate change (MRFCJ, nd). The MRFCJ focuses on three key areas: human rights and climate change, women’s leadership on gender and climate change, and future generations.

The vision of the MGH Institute Center for Climate Change, Climate Justice, and Health is to reduce the global impact of climate change on health through education, research, and advocacy. We are committed to embracing the concept of climate justice and engaging nurses and other health care professionals in climate change initiatives. 

Our early initiatives include continuing education programming and the development of an innovative, climate-centered nursing certificate. Next year, the MGH Institute will host a symposium bringing together global thought leaders on this important topic. Faculty research on the issue has already begun, and will be further prioritized.


Lemery, J., Williams, C., & Farmer, P. (2014). Editorial: The great procrastination. Health and Human Rights, 16 (1), 1-3.

Nightingale, F. (1859). Notes on nursing: What it is, and what it is not. New York: Appleton Company.

Levy, B.S., Patz, J.A. (2015). Climate Change and Public Health, Oxford University Press

Mary Robinson Foundation Climate Justice. (nd). Principles of climate justice. Retrieved from

Mary Robinson Foundation Climate Justice. (2013). Meeting the Needs of Future Generations