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Decarbonizing the Economy

Climate change and cancer prevention: strategic links

Reversing global warming requires eliminating our modern economy’s dependence on chemistries of fossilized carbon. And just as greenhouse gases are the direct result of carbon-based fuels, so too are an almost limitless array of synthetic organic compounds – both purposely invented and waste products. These are responsible for a growing global burden of chronic diseases including cancer, neurologic, reproductive and developmental abnormalities. Of all the chronic diseases caused by synthetic toxins in the environment, cancer draws the public’s attention – fear, anger, compassion. As such, we think cancer is important as a sentinel illness, which can raise awareness of the real and direct threats to health of our carbon-based economy, and in turn catalyze investments in alternative technologies that benefit human and planetary health. 

The great majority of the known carcinogens circulating in our economy are made from petrochemicals – from fossilized carbon. Society is recognizing that we need to move to carbon-free, renewable energy sources. However, the link between fossil fuels and the production of plastics and associated toxins has not been clearly articulated. We can prevent cancer by removing these carcinogens from plastics and other materials, products and foods, and the highly toxic chemical production cycles needed to produce them. We have already seen that alternative energy technologies represent enormous opportunities for new economic growth; and in the same way, the design and production of safer bio-based, carbon-neutral alternative materials and products will generate new industries and jobs. In summary, we believe that primary cancer prevention and climate change remediation require a common, fundamental strategy: reducing our dependence on carbon as fuel and chemical feedstock while ensuring that the benefits of the alternative materials and technologies are equitably shared throughout society. Linking these two realms, which currently run along separate tracks, can result in better technological, economic and political solutions.

What needs to be done: Three approaches to building momentum to decarbonize our economy.

  1. The new materials economy - production
    The Lowell Center is a recognized leader in transforming the materials economy. This involves systems analysis, developing and disseminating tools to guide materials development and evaluation, building and supporting networks of engineers, businesses and government agencies. Because we have built networks of partners in communities, government and industries, we are in a very strong position to scale up this work.  People need to see practical solutions before they will support structural changes; there is a positive message about the economic opportunities of a new carbon-free economy that does not leave communities and workers behind, and we have experience framing and delivering that message for many diverse communities. Our work with diverse industry sectors and in regions, along with our leadership in networks such as the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council and the Cancer Free Economy Network, provides lessons, models and relationships for strategic scaling across the country.
  2. The new materials economy - consumption
    Consumer campaigns, if framed carefully, can help the public understand and support large structural changes, in addition to adjusting individual behavior.  Recycling, green products, energy conservation and alternatives to plastics are important opportunities for education about how the energy and materials economies function and how they can be transformed. Institution-focused initiatives can leverage change in consumption on larger scales. The Lowell Center works with mass organizations and consumer-oriented advocates to help them communicate messages about structural change.  We work with institutions and sectors to enable them to both anticipate and respond to consumer demand by shifting their policies and practices away from reliance on toxic chemicals.
  3. Cancer prevention
    Cancer is one of the most traumatic and costly outputs of the carbon-based economy. There is both need and opportunity for helping all sectors of society recognize the connection between carbon fuels and health, and the health benefits of decarbonization. As a public university with a long history in community education and economic development, and strong relationships with health scientists, practitioners and policy advocates, we are in a strong position to design and deliver education targeted at many sectors of society ranging from cancer research and advocacy organizations to medically-underserved and polluted neighborhoods to high-tech startups. Over the last four years, the Lowell Center’s own research and our deep investment in the Cancer Free Economy Network have begun to demonstrate the potential for integrating environmental carcinogen reduction—and the decarbonization of the economy--into cancer prevention research, policy and practice, and into initiatives focused on climate change.