A new agenda for the planet’s health  

Aaron Bernstein

September 25, 2015 — On September 25 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, a new global agenda to replace the Millennium Development Goals. The 17 new goals include 169 targets to be met over the next 15 years in such areas as ending poverty, improving gender equality, and taking action on climate change. Aaron Bernstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, recently answered three questions about the SDGs.

A number of the goals and targets broadly touch on environmental policy, particularly goal #13: “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” Are these sorts of lofty goals helpful?

The SDGs reflect humanity’s best intents and reflect a deeply thought-out agenda on what we need to do to make the planet as healthy as it can be. And, they call us to really strive for worthy ends.

Many people may criticize the goals because they are broad, lofty, and sometimes a bit unspecific. But, if nothing else, they provide an important point of reference.

The challenge, of course, is how do we achieve them?

Do you think the SDGs will make a difference in the United States towards mustering political will for climate action?

The U.S. government—and the public—have had little interest in the U.N. for some time and I would not expect the SDGs to change that. The SDGs are much more a part of the conversation in parts of Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, and Australia.

That being said, the U.S. government has embarked on many fronts to work towards the goals, even if not explicitly linking to them. Consider the push to reduce carbon emissions, as one example.

How do the SDGs fit in with the work of the Center?

The Center has been involved in two of the areas addressed by the SDGs—climate change and biodiversity protection—for some time. We have always tried to make clear the human health dimensions of sustainability. Climate change, for example, is not merely about the melting of polar ice caps, nor is the loss of species and biodiversity merely about yearning for polar bears. These are fundamentally concerns for human health.

I’d argue that the underlying motivation of the SDGs is to ensure the healthiest possible future for ourselves and our children, and that really goes to the core of what we do at CHGE. For example, earlier this year we were part of an analysis that showed that better carbon emissions standards in the U.S. could save thousands of lives from air pollution.

Amy Roeder