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How Are Professional Societies Engaging Their Members on Climate Change?

By Miranda Spencer
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From architecture to medicine to water management, many professional organizations are already educating their members on issues related to climate change. But given its impacts on the communities they serve—and even their own jobs—how well are these groups integrating climate change prevention, preparedness, and social equity into their work? And what might help them to do it better? 

The Michigan-based Kresge Foundation commissioned independent researchers Missy Stults, Ph.D. and consultant Sara Meerow to find out. They analyzed 41 societies that reflect the diversity of professions that operate at the local level and play crucial roles in building resilience to climate change: construction, local government, engineering, planning, transportation, public health, and more. Their findings are published in a new report, Professional Societies and Climate Change.

In a nutshell, while almost all groups studied are concerned and active around sustainability in general, when it comes to addressing climate change and climate equity, there’s a range. A few are not involved at all. Some have begun dipping their toes in—say, holding a presentation, staring a working group, or producing fact sheets— while others are mobilizing comprehensive climate-education strategies across their organization.  Wherever they fall on this spectrum, though, professional societies say they are hungry for ways “to better share experiences, resources and lessons learned” with their peers and constituencies, “particularly short, digestible stories … and tools for translating scientific information into actionable practices,” as Meerow put it.

 Professionals increasingly recognize that the decisions they make can accelerate or slow greenhouse gas emissions, and also affect how well society prepares for climate impacts. Membership organizations are well positioned to speed the mainstreaming of climate considerations into decision making at the local level.

-- Lois DeBacker, managing director of Kresge’s Environment Program

A Closer Look

By examining materials on the societies’ websites, the researchers determined how extensive their resources and activities on climate change were in three key areas: adaptation, or planning for the effects of climate change that are underway or anticipated; mitigation, or reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change; and social justice, or fostering social cohesion and inclusion in the context of climate change.

Within each of these three categories, they found that societies are engaged in nine types of activities: 

1) advocacy

2) education and information dissemination

3) external partnership building

4) funding

5) networking

6) recognition

7) research

8) standard setting

9) training

 

 

Based on this information, the researchers split the 41 organizations into three “tiers” of involvement, with Tier 1 being the most involved. They found that while many professional societies fell into Tier 2 or 3, taking a more piecemeal approach to engaging their professions on climate, nine of the groups met the criteria for Tier 1. These organizations take a holistic approach, making climate change a “core component of their culture, educational curriculum, and standards of practice.”

Among the exemplary organizations were two health care societies: the National Medical Association and the American Public Health Association, both of which are Climate for Health partners. The NMA is the largest and oldest national organization representing African American physicians and their patients in the United States.  Among other things, the NMA has made the effects of climate change on patient health a centerpiece of its Environmental Health Commission’s work.  Readers of this blog are no doubt familiar with the 140-year-old APHA, which aims to champion the health of all people and all communities.  APHA recently launched its Year of Climate Change and Health to raise awareness of the health impacts of climate change and mobilize partners to take action.  

Insights from the Field

In the second phase of the study, Stults and Meerow conducted interviews with a subgroup of 15 organizations (mostly Tier 1, but some from tiers 2 and 3). They explored how the societies think about and engage their membership on climate issues, which practices they find most promising, and the challenges they face in scaling them up. The themes that emerged from these talks align with many of the insights from ecoAmerica’s communication guides and can provide practical entry points for health care groups to engage their members and communities on climate change. Here a just a few:

Peers Matter: Professional societies’ members listen to their peers, according to the report. So it’s important to find “champions,” provide them with a platform, and then help them to disseminate their case studies, examples, and practices widely. Creating peer-networking opportunities is also vital.

Share Stories: There is a felt need to collect and share concise stories about climate-change preparation and prevention in action. To that end, many organizations are creating “digestible” educational materials, such as memos and webinar series, to replace longer reports. Brief videos or podcasts and social media blitzes are also ideal vehicles. (Check out APHA’s YouTube video, Climate Changes Health, for a good example.)

Frame Communications Around Disaster Preparedness and Resilience: Many organizations told researchers they use these topics as an entry point to discuss climate change with their membership, focusing on how to transform the way we think about, build, and operate our urban areas.

Educate the Public as Well as Membership: Professional groups believe the wider public must understand and demand climate action before these professions are able to act to their full potential.

Collaboration Is Essential: All of the organizations interviewed collaborate extensively and are always looking for new partners to round out their expertise, bring new insights, and speak with one voice around climate-change action.

As one might expect, the organizations say lacks of time and resources limit their ability to deepen and expand the ways they engage members on climate. But the possibilities for partnering to teach and learn from one another are limitless.


The Kresge Foundation is a $3.6 billion private, national foundation that works to expand opportunities in America’s cities through grantmaking and social investing in arts and culture, education, environment, health, human services and Detroit-based community development. To read the complete report, go here.