It was a toasty mid-July afternoon in Orlando and the convention center clock had not yet reached the respectable hour of five p.m. Perched on a bar stool at the edge of the stage, NEHA’s executive director, Dr. David Dyjack, kicked off his inaugural keynote at the 2015 Annual Educational Convention and Exhibition (AEC) by uncorking a bottle of wine, pouring two glasses, and inviting some 1,000 environmental health professionals in the audience to “pull up a chair” and join him. He went on to share an ambitious vision for elevating their organization and profession at the national and global levels, including shifting the link between health and climate towards the center of organizational priorities and communication efforts.
As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, communication about climate change often leaves much to be desired. Yale’s latest national Project on Climate Change Communication survey revealed that only 16% of Americans say they hear people they know talk about global warming at least once a month. This is an unfortunate number given that 67% of the public trusts family and friends as a source of climate information – nearly as many as the 70% who say they trust climate scientists.
However, the AEC gathering featured a diverse group of new and old acquaintances far more prepared than most to mix cocktails and climate conversation. Indeed, this audience is increasingly on the front lines, witnessing and responding to the very real and growing health effects of climate change that just last month were underscored by the Lancet Commission Report on Health and Climate.
As NEHA’s environmental health experts work to make communities safer and healthier places to live, much of the responsibility for implementing the Lancet’s recommendations will fall to them. Dr. Dyjack noted, “The health threats from climate change are probably the most critical environmental health issue today. Environmental health professionals are the ones working to protect people’s health and its environment – air quality, healthy homes, water, built environment, food safety/security, and more.” If, as the Lancet relays, “tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century,” then NEHA’s close to 5,000 members will play a sizable role in this effort.
Cross-sector climate preparedness
Recognizing that climate change is already impacting our health and that we need collaborative action on a large scale across many sectors, the AEC devoted an entire program track to climate change and environmental health topics. Along with colleagues from the American Public Health Association (APHA), I delivered a presentation entitled “Adaptation in Action: Preparing for Tomorrow’s Climate Change Concerns Today,” which highlighted Climate for Health’s new partnership to elevate the public health and climate change connection within APHA. The session showcased examples of how new state-based climate and health adaptation plans supported through the CDC’s “BRACE” (Building Resistance Against Climate Effects) program are beginning to be implemented.
Climate for Health is part of the broader MomentUs initiative designed to build awareness and leadership for climate solutions across the business, higher education, community, and faith sectors – all of which are necessary partners in expanding climate resilience capacity within communities by contributing additional expertise and resources. For example, a growing number of churches and retail centers are becoming formally integrated into climate adaptation plans by serving as cooling centers to offset health dangers related to high heat advisory days. University sustainability centers and academic research labs are also partnering with their communities to conduct research and provide localized data to help inform severe weather planning.
New strategies for climate communication
With climate change becoming a foundational issue for the health field, Dr. Dyjack is on a mission to considerably expand NEHA’s visibility. Already harnessing new outlets such as hosting a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” event in May that attracted over 150 participants, he is exploring every opportunity to speak out about climate change and other core environmental health priorities both internally and externally. As the new executive director taking over NEHA’s helm, Dr. Dyjack showed the AEC audience how to embrace climate conversations and leadership, even within a happy-hour setting. He strongly reinforced the practical value of NEHA’s environmental health training, education, networking, and advancement offerings, but his most impassioned moments were aimed at inspiring NEHA members to fully embody their role in preserving the public’s day-to-day safety and well-being.
Describing environmental health as fundamentally a “contact sport,” Dr. Dyjack shared his plan to enlist every communication vehicle possible – podcasts, videos, social media, blogs, etc. – to re-package and promote to the public and decision-makers alike the vital role played by health professionals. NEHA’s members, more than any other, have hands-on knowledge of how social, economic and environmental conditions give rise to poor health. Dr. Dyjack invited his stakeholders to do the same, noting, “The bedrock of life as we know it is anchored in a safe and healthy environment.”
Cheers and “salud” to NEHA’s next chapter of environmental health and climate solutions leadership!
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