Date of Defense:
April 26, 2019
Introduction: Climate change is considered one of the greatest global health challenges of the 21st century (Watts et al., 2015). The increasing loading of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere raises average global temperatures and alters weather systems and precipitation, leading to extreme heat and extreme weather events, including floods and drought. Extreme heat events can exacerbate existing chronic health conditions and cause heat stress and heatstroke. Direct health affects of flooding include injuries and death, waterborne diseases, and exposure to toxic contaminants and mold, whereas drought causes food insecurity and malnutrition. Climate change also increases levels of major air pollutants including particulate matter, ground-level ozone, and pollen, which can induce or aggravate respiratory conditions such as allergies, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer, and contribute to cardiovascular disease. Warmer, wetter conditions caused by climate change are favorable to the spread of insects harboring infectious pathogens, such as mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus and ticks carrying Lyme disease. (Minnesota Department of Health, 2015). In short, climate change is already impacting human health, and is projected to only worsen, as the pace of climate change greatly outweighs the urgency of the response (Watts et al., 2018).
Yet, an appreciation and understanding of the health impacts of climate change is lacking among the public and even among health professionals and public health departments. In nationally representative surveys, relatively few North Americans associated climate change with health, and most reported they had given the issue little thought (Hathaway & Maibach, 2018). One driver of this lack of knowledge is that the issue receives little media attention; in surveys of national and local newspapers in the U.S., the proportion of climate change stories focusing on health ranged from 5 to 14% (Hathaway & Maibach, 2018). Most public health departments acknowledge climate change as a potentially serious public health problem, but relatively few have developed programs to address it, claiming that they need greater expertise, additional staff, and greater financial resources (Roser-Renouf, Maibach, & Li, 2016). Most physicians believe that climate change is already affecting the health of their patients, but feel they lack knowledge on the topic, and they support education on climate change and health, including continuing medical education, undergraduate medical education, patient education materials, and medical association policy statements. A majority of physicians also believe that health professionals should be involved in advocacy pertaining to the health effects of climate change (Hathaway & Maibach, 2018).
Experience: Concerned with the disconnect between the evidence of the health impacts of climate change and the lack of knowledge and urgency among both health professionals and the lay public, I sought a field experience that would involve disseminating this critical information. I was fortunate to learn of Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate (HPHC), an interdisciplinary organization of health professionals across the state of Minnesota focused on protecting and improving human health by promoting climate health. Their mission is to educate health professionals, the public, and policymakers about the effects of climate on health, and to advocate for policies and institutional changes that address climate change mitigation and building resilience to protect public health. The organization is led by an Executive Committee of 15 health professionals of various disciplines, including physicians, nurses, public health professionals, and UMN faculty members, and has a network of 450 members across the state. HPHC members have led projects promoting sustainability practices in their workplaces, created and implemented curriculum on climate change and health for the Associated Colleges of Health of the University of Minnesota, and given multiple community presentations. The organization is actively involved in advocating for clean energy policy by drafting and sending letters with multiple signatories, writing op-eds and letters to the editor, directly meeting with legislators, and giving testimony at legislative hearings.
In discussing the intersections between the needs of HPHC and my own interests, we arrived at a field experience project for me in conjunction with HPHC’s Voices project, a longitudinal attempt to integrate community education about the health impacts of climate change in Minnesota to rural citizens across the state. I was to develop an interdisciplinary toolkit to educate health professionals about the impacts of climate change on health and support them in effectively communicating these issues to policymakers, the media, and the public. To accomplish this, I was to collect, review, and interpret research findings on climate change and health and effective communication strategies and disseminate this information via a digital repository accessible by health professionals affiliated with HPHC.
Results and Lessons Learned: I developed a creative commons online resource toolkit summarizing information about climate-related health impacts in Minnesota as useful talking points for health professionals interested in educating themselves and their colleagues, patients, and policymakers. The toolkit also includes resources on effective communication of these topics. As HPHC is highly active in advocating for policy addressing climate change, I collaborated with the policy action team to develop talking points on state legislation currently under consideration that is supported by HPHC, with calls to action to recruit members across the state to contact their local legislators.
As maternal and child health is of particular interest and importance to me, I also collected and created materials on the impacts of climate change on maternal and child health with the intent of targeting this information to health professionals working with this population.
I also had the opportunity to work with HPHC in hosting a happy hour event to recruit and network with health professionals, and a webinar to present strategies for effectively communicating climate change and health.
Through these efforts, I greatly expanded my understanding of climate change and health, and more importantly, my understanding of how to effectively communicate this issue at multiple levels. I achieved greater facility with web-based tools and social media, and a greater appreciation for importance of these tools in expanding messaging impact. I also improved my understanding of grassroots community organizing and its importance in the legislative process, and the importance of connecting public health and policy.
Recommendations: The success of HPHC thus far relies on the dedication and passion of a core group of members. Creating a more formalized structure with greater organization and institutional memory would ensure the longevity of HPHC and increase its impact. Seeking out funding through grants or donors would potentially enable hiring a dedicated staff person to help manage the organization, and would facilitate further outreach. To reach the goal of connecting health professionals across the state rather than just those in the metro area, HPHC should work on increasing its visibility through more prolific use of social media, as well as by networking with potential partner organizations and institutions. Additionally, through its ties to UMN and other institutions, HPHC could be involved in conducting and publishing research on climate change and health, particularly on communication strategies and interventions.
Conclusion: Climate change is an urgent public health threat. Improving the understanding of the public health impacts of climate change among health professionals, the public, and policymakers is critical for mounting an effective response. Grassroots organizations like HPHC that foster interdisciplinary communication among health professionals and leverage their expertise to educate the public and influence policy present are an invaluable asset for protecting public health.
Hathaway, J., & Maibach, E. W. (2018). Health Implications of Climate Change: a Review of the Literature About the Perception of the Public and Health Professionals. Current Environmental Health Reports, 5(1), 197–204. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40572-018-0190-3
Minnesota Department of Health. (2015). Minnesota Climate & Health Profile Report. St. Paul, MN.
Roser-Renouf, C., Maibach, E. W., & Li, J. (2016). Adapting to the Changing Climate: An Assessment of Local Health Department Preparations for Climate Change-Related Health Threats, 2008-2012. PloS One, 11(3), e0151558. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0151558
Watts, N., Adger, W. N., Agnolucci, P., Blackstock, J., Byass, P., Cai, W., … & Cox, P. M. (2015). Health and climate change: policy responses to protect public health. The Lancet, 386(10006), 1861-1914.
Watts, N., Amann, M., Arnell, N., Ayeb-Karlsson, S., Belesova, K., Berry, H., … Costello, A. (2018). The 2018 report of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: shaping the health of nations for centuries to come. The Lancet, 392(10163), 2479–2514. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)32594-7