Climate change harms moms and babies—but we can do something about it right now

Climate change is a factor in worsening Black maternal health, but there's a solution.

mom-holding-baby-on-beach
Cavan Images/Getty

This is a scandal: In the richest nation on earth, mothers are dying at the highest rate in the developed world. The crisis is most severe for Black moms in the United States, who are dying at three to four times the rate of their white counterparts.

We know that massive underlying health disparities in our country—such as maternal deaths—reflect our long history of racial injustice. Many are also caused or worsened by air pollution and other environmental factors. Maternal mortality is no exception. Though the Clean Air Act has done so much to lessen pollution across the country, it has not been applied fairly; low income and communities of color have borne the burden of more pollution over the decades.

And to add insult to injury, climate change is making these health disparities worse. This is happening here and now, not in some far-off future: Heat waves, superstorms, flooding and wildfires made worse by climate pollution threaten the health of our families and our communities across the country today. Pregnant women are especially vulnerable to the damage caused by a warming climate and weather on steroids. Recent research assessing more than 32 million births in the United States found that "exacerbation of air pollution and heat exposure related to climate change may be significantly associated with risk to pregnancy outcomes in the US" and the "subpopulations at highest risk were persons with asthma and minority groups, especially [Black] mothers."

The good news is that we don't have to wait one more minute to protect pregnant mothers from the impacts of climate pollution.

Changes to public policy can address this, which is why we need the Protecting Mom and Babies Against Climate Change Act, led by Congresswoman Underwood in the House and Senator Ed Markey in the Senate. It's a crucial part of Congresswoman Underwood's Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021.


The Momnibus is a suite of 12 individual bills that address every dimension of the Black maternal health crisis. The Momnibus seeks to transform the lives of Black mothers and babies for the better. That alone would make this a landmark initiative, but this act also includes legislation that is groundbreaking because it explicitly addresses climate change-related risks for pregnant women. Climate change is a health threat that makes wrenching health disparities worse. We can, and we must, do something about it.

The Protecting Moms and Babies Against Climate Change Act will make robust investments in initiatives to reduce exposure to extreme heat, air pollution, and other environmental threats to pregnant and postpartum people and their infants. It will provide direct assistance to pregnant women in high-risk communities by providing air conditioning, subsidizing home weatherization, increasing the tree canopy, training doulas and other birth workers, and investing in research on climate and maternal health. These programs will pave the way for healthier moms and babies, easing the maternal health crisis while responding to the real and present dangers of climate change.

The parents I work with across the country recognize climate change for the serious health threat that it is—they have lived it, and they have suffered because of it. As a Black woman and advocate for mothers and children, I know that addressing climate change will help pregnant women and their babies. It will especially help Black mothers. I am relieved that funding the urgent work of climate resilience in maternal health has finally reached the halls of Congress. I now urge all Members of Congress to join in this effort to help women and their babies.

They say that all politicians love babies and children. Now we have an important way for legislators to show that love, and protect the health of all of America's families.

Tonya Howard Calhoun, PHD is the National Field Manager for Moms Clean Air Force [momscleanairforce.org], a national organization of more than one million parents fighting air pollution and climate change for the sake of their children’s health. She lives in metro-Atlanta with her husband.

In This Article