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Get to Know a Climate Champion: Melissa Ibarra

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. October's theme is Vulnerable Populations, with a Focus on Children. (Answers are an edited composite of information shared with us.)

This month's Champion is Melissa Ibarra.  Melissa received her MPH at the University of California, Davis.  During the course of her studies, she completed her practicum with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.  Her capstone project involved the study of hand hygiene biosecurity practices of fairgoers at California county fairs.  Additionally, she spent the 2015-2016 academic year working as a Graduate Student Assistant at the Cal-EPA’s Office of Environmental Health Hazards Assessment.  Here she worked on risk assessment, including preparation of Hazard Identification Documents, literature review, summarization and synthesis of data.  During her first year as a Cal-EIS Fellow, Melissa worked at the Office of Health Equity where she assessed the impacts of climate change on California communities, particularly vulnerable populations. Melissa hopes to continue to address health inequities as a Cal-EIS Fellow through her work at the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development (OSHPD).  

Melissa, thank you for your participation in last year's APHA Learning Institute.  Please describe your experience at the Institute in one sentence.

The APHA Learning Institute was both informative and encouraging.

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

Much of my interest in public health originates from my own experiences as a child. I grew up in East Palo Alto, CA. East Palo Alto lacked greenery, access to affordable and healthy foods, safety, and quality education. As a result, I attended school in Palo Alto, CA, which is largely known for its resources, opportunity and excellent education. Although I loved receiving my education from the Palo Alto School District, I noticed a significant difference in the 

 

livelihood of my neighborhood and that of where I went to school.  As a child, I couldn’t quite convey the turmoil that I felt for the difference in treatment between individuals in the two cities. I am still frustrated by the inequities faced by poorer, vulnerable, and some communities of color. Health professionals must remain cognizant of the multiple ways that climate change impacts every person and community.

Why were you interested in the Learning Institute course, what were your key takeaways, and how do you plan to apply what you've learned?

I wanted to learn how health professionals in the United States are defining the relationship between climate change and public health in order to avoid climate change/science jargon and language that triggers arguments.  I've applied what I've learned in written reports, incorporating language about climate change that’s understandable to a lay audience.

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

Since the APHA Learning Institute, I have created maps that visualize the impacts of several climate change indicators (e.g., sea level rise, projected number of extreme heat days) in the State of California. Additionally, I made comparisons to assess whether some race groups are at a greater risk of experiencing some climate change indicators. Children and the elderly are typically some of the most impacted by climate change indicators. In addition, Latino and African American communities are more vulnerable to some climate change indicators, like extreme heat, since they are likely to occupy spaces that do not have tree canopy coverage. These maps and comparisons will provide guidance for local health departments on how to prepare for climate change, and inform California policies related to climate change.

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

Climate solutions can be as simple as increasing the number of open spaces and/or tree canopy coverage. Having safe, green spaces to admire and/or play in can have a lifelong positive impact on one’s mental health, especially that of a child’s. Keep an open mind as to what some may perceive as a climate change concern, and provide positive yet attainable goals for communities to improve the health of their immediate environment and that of their community members.