Ten years ago, Dr. Susan Pacheco, a pediatric immunologist/allergist at Children's Memorial Hermann Hospital and Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston, was concerned about the increasing incidence and severity of asthma and allergies in her young patients. But like many people, she hadn’t yet made the connection between climate change and what she was seeing in her work.
Today, she is one of the medical community’s top climate leaders, finding opportunities in every area of her life to educate and organize around solutions to carbon pollution. That persistent passion led the White House to name her one of 11 public health “Champions of Change” for 2013. (Three members of Climate for Health’s current Leadership Circle were also so honored: Dr. Laura Anderko, Gary Cohen, and Dr. Linda Rudolph.)
Susan Pacheco’s journey and the variety of ways she participates (while still juggling a practice, teaching, and her family) offer examples of both large and small ways to mobilize support for climate progress that can be tailored to one’s own talents, location, and schedule.
The Moment of Truth
One evening back in 2006, Dr. Pacheco was trying to help her eldest son with his science homework, on climate change. She decided it would be educational for them both to see the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” then in theaters – and wound up taking her husband and their two other children as well. The film shook her to the core. She had an epiphany: “My planet is sick.” And that meant she had a “moral responsibility, as a person and as a doctor” to help heal it, as she later told Texas Climate News.
So she started reading everything she could get her hands on, and she soon applied to join the Climate Reality Project, a corps of volunteers from around the world trained to give the same eye-opening slide show former Vice President Al Gore gives in his film, but live, in their own communities. Since then, she’s presented the talk numerous times to professional, religious, business, Latino, and other groups, and now serves as a trainer and mentor to new volunteers. She talks more about it in the video below.
Finding a Niche
Along the way, Dr. Pacheco’s focus moved from planetary to personal. Her growing knowledge allowed her to trace the connections between the wheezing and heat sensitivity she was seeing in her young patients and the greenhouse-gas-driven air pollution and high temperatures in the region where she works. “I realized that climate change was not only about protecting polar bears, but also protecting children and their families, their physical and emotional health,” she told an interviewer with Global Moms Challenge last year.
Because “the damaging effect of climate change in human health was a neglected topic in the climate conversations,” Dr. Pacheco decided to focus her advocacy on educating people on these connections. She now consults on public policy with high-level groups such as the American Lung Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics. But sometimes her contribution is as simple as answering a reporter’s question on climate and health. She is a member of the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, which matches media and government inquiries about climate change with experts who can best address them.
Taking It Local
She has also created her own presentations tailored to the community in which she lives and works—which happens to be the epicenter of U.S. fossil-fuel production. This past November, for example, she gave a keynote speech on “The Human Impacts of Climate Change,” at a local, cross-disciplinary sustainability conference called Intersections 2016 at the University of Houston Downtown.
She has also helped organize and amplify the voices of other leaders in the Lone Star State, founding both the Alliance of Health Professionals Against Climate Change, focused on spreading information on climate and health to their patients, and the Texas Coalition for Climate Change Awareness, a network of diverse individuals focused on learning about and educating their fellow Texans on climate change.
A Never-Ending Conversation
Beyond these more formal activities, she takes the message that climate care is health care to the people she sees every day. Dr. Pacheco told Texas Climate News, “I talk about climate to every person that I can. That’s not an exaggeration.”
For example, she integrates the subject into lectures for her medical-school students at the University of Texas Health Science Center, where she is an associate professor of pediatrics, and is working to make information on the links between climate and health a standard part of the curriculum at all medical schools.
Dr. Pacheco routinely introduces the topic into conversations with concerned parents who bring their kids in to her clinic, explaining how climate change harms air quality and ramps up temperatures, advising them to keep an eye on heat and air-quality indexes so they that can better manage the respiratory problems greenhouse gases can aggravate in children. She told NBC News, “What worries me the most is the vulnerability of the populations that are not as blessed as we are that have access to knowledge,” especially communities of color and the homeless, who are already feeling greater impacts of climate change.
And on a more informal basis, she’s started conversations with other parents. As she told Global Moms, “The moment mothers realize the threat climate change poses to their children’s health, the focus of climate conversations will change. The world does not want to mess with a mother bear trying to protect her threatened cubs!”
Clearly, not every heath professional is going to become a climate advocacy superstar. But even committing to one thing – giving a presentation to coworkers, becoming an on-call expert, serving on a panel at a local conference, or weaving climate messages into medical advice to your patients or students, can have a ripple effect. Especially now that positive federal action on the environment is not guaranteed, we ourselves need to lead.
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