Chelsea Clinton and Lily Cole Q&A

Chelsea Clinton Lily Cole

In this exclusive Climate Hero conversation, Chelsea Clinton, activist, writer, and former First Family icon, talks with Lily Cole, supermodel-slash-entrepreneur and climate activist. It's been said that women have a strong track record for action when it comes to climate and social justice, and Chelsea and Lily are no exception. Notably, both were signers of the open letter put forth by SHEChangesClimate, a collaborative effort to bring diversity and inclusiveness, transparency and accountability to the COP26 negotiations on Climate Change. And while Chelsea's work is heavily focused on health as it relates to women, children, and the planet, Lily has long been an environmental campaigner. Lily's questions for Chelsea get to the heart of climate and social justice matters, delving into topics that range from gender equality and COVID to the Electoral College and so much in between.

This conversation took place last month on May 27th and will be released in two parts. It offers the intimate perspectives of these two very active and influential female voices.

Part I

Lily Cole: First off, I want to hear your thoughts on the intersection between climate change and global gender equality.

Chelsea Clinton: Oh, goodness, Lily, there are so many quite painful intersections between climate change and gender equality, or gender inequality. For example, we know that with the rise of extreme weather events -- both becoming more frequent and more extreme -- that the compression and cadence of those events are far more likely to push women into poverty all over the world, whether here in the United States or throughout Latin America, the Asia Pacific region, or Africa.

We also know, consequently, that the ravaging effects of climate change are far more likely to push women and children into homelessness and food insecurity. We know that the effects of climate change are directly leading to an increase in child marriage around the globe, which overwhelmingly affects young girls. We know that the continued avoidance of climate change mitigation strategies and absence of real urgency to move to more renewable sources of energy also continues to have disproportionately negative impacts on women and children.

Clinton Foundation: Women In Renewable Energy (WIRE) Network | You deserve your space at the table, October 29, 2020.

LC: I know you've been working for many years on public health, looking at development around the world. At what point did the intersection of these different social and climate issues come on your radar?

CC: I first became aware of how consequential climate change really is for public health around the time of Hurricane Katrina here in the US, and the ways natural disaster preyed on generations of structural inequality. While devastating for huge swaths of the Gulf Coast, Katrina was far more devastating for low-income families who could not afford to get out of the hurricane's path, who were far more likely to lose their homes, livelihoods, in some cases -- their lives -- and also to suffer from ongoing housing and food insecurity with long-term health consequences.

We have seen this pattern with natural disasters -- not only hurricanes, but heat waves, droughts, and other weather events that are more frequent and extreme because of climate change -- preying upon pre-existing vulnerabilities that are often the consequence of generations of policy decisions.

And thinking about the ways rising average temperatures around the world are affecting people's lives -- their individual and community health -- and ultimately, our shared global public health. Other examples of how rising temperatures affect the world are the rising rates of respiratory [and other] illnesses, like malaria becoming more common again in places it had been eradicated, or droughts that lead to crop failures and more food insecurity, or forced migration due to climate change creating inhospitable temperatures and devastating consequences for crops and livestock and communities that have existed for decades, centuries and sometimes even millennia.

So, I think my awareness of how painfully interlinked climate change and public health originated with Hurricane Katrina almost two decades ago. But it was quickly something I began to see everywhere. Sort of like when my children learn a new word and then all of a sudden they are trying to wedge it into their vocabulary every minute of every day. I think that's what happened after I began to recognize the ubiquity of how interconnected climate change and public health really are. And now it seems, of course, so obvious.

NBC TODAY: "I wanted to broaden people's understanding of public health issues" like addiction, HIV and climate change as well as COVID-19, May 26, 2021.

World Affairs Council of Greater Houston: Chelsea Clinton - Governing Global Health, May 21, 2021.

LC: Do you feel like there's been a broader, growing political awareness of those connections? Do you feel like it’s as recognized as it needs to be?

CC: Yes, there's been a growing awareness. But we're still so far from where we need to be.

LC: Last year there were multiple reports published -- such as those from the UNEP and IPBES -- that connected the rise of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 to the same causal factors driving the climate and biodiversity crises. I don't know if you've seen those reports, but do you feel like yeah, there are quite clearly links between health and the environmental situation?

CC: I mean, we're not short on evidence and we're not short on reports. We're just short on -- at least here in the US, unfortunately -- politicians who are willing to listen to that evidence, or feel a responsibility to act on it. Just thinking about fracking here in the US -- and given the rather overwhelming preponderance of evidence that proves how dangerous fracking is for mothers, especially expectant mothers, and children -- it shouldn't be a debate. And yet, for all of the righteous rhetoric on the right around being pro-life, there seems to be no connection to quality of life beyond that act of giving birth. Even among Democrats, there isn’t enough focus on a social safety net -- investment in public education, our care economy, or mitigating climate change that would help protect children. We don't have the consensus that we should have -- that fracking is dangerous -- and that we need to be taking decisive steps away from it.

We're also not short on evidence linking climate change to a myriad of health outcomes, including disproportionate health outcomes. It’s a calamity, the ways in which climate change worsens health inequities as they relate to race, socioeconomic status, or gender. And yet, at least in the US, none of that has been sufficient enough to galvanize the need to take urgent, decisive action towards stopping climate change and protecting public health.

Chelsea Clinton and Lily Cole attend a Clinton Foundation event in London, May 2012.

LC: I was hopeful that a silver lining to COVID would be an awakening about the intersection of biodiversity and climate. And that taking environmental action is not just caring about animals, etcetera, etcetera -- it's actually about our health and the fundamental need for a healthy environment. It seems unfortunate to me that those connections have been made, but don't feel like the dominant mainstream understanding of the situation.

CC: Just think about the recent reports around the rapid pace of deforestation, which is painful every year, but especially painful in the midst of a global pandemic that's predominantly a respiratory illness. What we need to do is clean up our air, stop emitting pollutants, and invest in what we know works, including preserving our forest cover and a longer term strategy for reforestation. I do think one great sleight of hand that the commercial agriculture industry has been able to effectuate is completely suffocating any conversation around the biodiversity that is lost through their actions. We see this loss with palm oil plantations and orangutans in Indonesia and plant and animal biodiversity in the Amazon.


Part II of this conversation was published on July 2. The full recording of this Q&A will be available for listening on Who Cares Wins, Lily Cole's podcast, this coming August.