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Get to Know a Climate Champion: Aubree Thelen

By Tim Kelly
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During its Annual Meeting & Expo last fall, the American Public Health Association and Climate for Health’s parent organization, ecoAmerica, held the first-ever Learning Institute: "Climate Change and Health: Building Your Expertise and Leadership for a 21st-Century Climate for Health.”  (Our partners in this venture included the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.) The goal: to help prepare participants to speak as leaders on climate and health impacts and solutions.

To expand the number of public health professionals who have the support they need to learn about the issues, ecoAmerica awarded Learning Institute scholarships to 10 individuals from all over the United States.  Boasting a diversity of backgrounds and experience, these “Climate Champions” will continue to work throughout the year to promote awareness of and engagement on climate change as a health priority. 

As part of this program, each month during 2017 the Climate for Health blog will publish a Q&A with one of our Climate Champions on how the Learning Institute inspired them and how they plan to integrate it into their work. Each blog will be keyed to the monthly theme of APHA’s Year of Climate Change and Health. September's theme is Extreme Weather. (Answers are an edited composite of information shared with us.)

This month's Champion is Aubree Thelen.  Aubree is a policy professional who has worked on a variety of public health topics, including violence prevention, cancer, tobacco, obesity, complete streets and paid leave policy work. She also has expertise in leading and fostering community coalitions as a co-chair of the Greater New Orleans Healthy Communities Coalition (GNOHCC). Aubree earned her MPH from Tulane University and currently works on statewide cancer policy for Louisiana.

Aubree, please begin by describing for us in one sentence your experience at the APHA Learning Institute. 

The institute gave me insight into the wide array of professionals working on climate change and health, and how different disciplines and programs are approaching the topic. 

Given what you see in your work, why do you feel climate change is an important issue for health professionals?

Climate change will impact every community and it will do so in different ways. I can attest to this as someone who grew up in the Midwest but now live in the Mississippi Delta. Each area has their own specific concerns, like tick-borne illness in Wisconsin, to the annual hurricane season here. As health professionals, we are trusted messengers and should use our voices to amplify these topics and the overall far-reaching effects and impacts of climate change.  It is our job to be caretakers of the health of our communities, and there is no other coded agenda.

Why were you interested in the Learning Institute course?

I was interested in the course because of what I see in communities here inLouisiana, as well as my passion for environmental health as it relates to behavior and structures. Louisiana is particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise as communities like Isle de Jean Charles are physically disappearing, but there is still hope for climate solutions and I feel health is a great way to approach the topic. 

What were your key takeaways from the course?

My key takeaways were that these issues are not intractable if we are able to come together on common goals, and speak in terms that everyone can understand. Often the work of connecting to already present issues in your community and using your own voice on a topic you care about can start the conversation. That is the first step and a necessary one. 

How do you plan to apply what you’ve learned? 

I’ve already used what I’ve learned to work on advocacy trainings for local coalitions.  Overall, the subject matter presented has increased my understanding of how climate change can be woven into many different topics, and I’ve used that in coalition-leading work as well.  Additionally, preparedness for cancer patients has been a topic that our program has worked to address during hurricane season.  Cancer patients are a particularly vulnerable population that can be displaced easily here in Louisiana by increased numbers and more powerful natural disasters and hurricanes, and having a planon how to continue treatment and care is crucial.

 

What are you currently doing to raise awareness and engagement around climate change? 

The current discourse on climate change in Louisiana can be disheartening, especially in the wake of hurricane season and recent extreme flood events that exceed living memory with their damage. Working the topic into conversation with health professionals that I work with on the GNOHCC is essential, as well as providing ways for them to connect to each other on the issue for the community. I also have been engaged in work on Complete Streets projects and policies around the state as a way to mitigate carbon emissions and connect communities, with opportunities for better storm water management.

What would you recommend to other health professionals who want to engage others on climate change?

Not all communities are the same when it comes to impacts of climate change. Knowing your community, who is already engaged, and what the biggest concerns are essential when thinking of framing your own concerns and starting that conversation. As a health professional, you are often trusted over others and for good reason: you are a caretaker and want what is best for the health of your community. Climate change and how it relates to other priorities is often an easier fit than you may guess, as long as you think through the connections and come to the community with the natural kindness that you possess. 

 

Tim Kelly is the Climate for Health Program Manager at ecoAmerica.  He has over six years of experience working within the health sector conducting outreach and education on the impacts of environment on our health.  If you have comments, questions, ideas, or would like to submit a blog of your own, feel free to contact Tim at timk@ecoamerica.org.