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. May’s theme is Air Quality and Lung and Heart Health. (Answers are an edited composite of information shared with us.)
This month's champion is Ruth McDermott-Levy, an associate professor and director of the Center for Global & Public Health at Villanova University’s College of Nursing near Philadelphia, PA. She holds a Ph. D. in nursing education from Villanova and an M.P.H. from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Ruth teaches and conducts research with a focus on global and environmental health, helping to educate students in linking how they live and work to air emissions and the changing climate. She is also the Education Workgroup co-chairperson of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments and a founding member of Protect PA.
Ruth, what drew you to the Learning Institute?
I have been teaching about the health impacts of climate change for more than 15 years. I have wanted to learn strategies to engage more people into action to protect human health and the health of our planet. The Learning Institute was an opportunity to develop climate communication skills more fully and to network with other professionals who had the same concern about our changing climate on human health.
How would you summarize your Learning Institute experience, and what were your takeaways from the course?
For me, the most valuable takeaways from the Climate Change Learning Institute were the tools and skills to communicate air quality and climate risk to other professionals and the public. We need to avoid the “we are all doomed” approach that is typical of health professionals when they talk about any health risk, such as cancer or cardiovascular disease. We need to change our approach and help people see that they can influence environmental impacts in ways that are useful and meaningful to them. This has made me rethink how I communicate any health risk.
How do you plan to apply what you’ve learned?
Using the communication strategies we learned during the APHA Learning Institute, I have added a section to my undergraduate public nursing course on communicating the risks of climate change. We look at the evidence related to the effectiveness of risk communication and we also include the Yale University’s Climate Change Communication website, communication guides from Climate for Health, and the ecoAmerica website.
Given what you see in your work, why do you feel climate change is an important issue for other health professionals?
Climate changes health and the health of communities. I travel internationally and work in my own city of Philadelphia. Internationally, I have seen the impact of food shortages related to drought and changing weather patterns on the health of families and communities. In Philadelphia, the air quality is frequently poor and we have the highest asthma rates in Pennsylvania. A 2016 study from NYU’s Marron Institute of Urban Management found that there were estimated 126 early deaths and 284 hospitalizations annually due to Philadelphia’s air pollution. Factors that influence these air pollutants, such as emissions from cars and trucks, lead to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
If we can improve our air quality, we can see immediate effects of decreased respiratory diseases and early death, and a healthier population. Health professionals must take a leadership role to advocate for policies that promote improved air quality. They should help people connect the dots by promoting less reliance on gas and diesel-powered transportation and more walking and biking for cleaner air and better overall health.
How would you recommend health professionals engage others on climate change?
First, I would recommend that other health professionals include an evaluation of their patients’ air quality during physical exams or assessments. This would include indoor and outdoor air quality. Furthermore, to develop leadership within the health professional community, I would recommend reaching out to organizations such as the American Public Health Association, Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and other professional organizations to find mentors and experts to help them engage with their patients and policy makers related to climate change.
What are you currently doing to raise awareness and engagement around climate change?
I educate undergraduate and graduate students in the impact of climate change on their health, the health of their communities, and on global health. I have them look at the EPA’s air quality readings in their own communities and relate those finding to the health data in those communities. Also, I am currently working on a community-based participatory research project related to environmental health educational needs for unconventional gas development (fracking) communities in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Miranda Spencer is a freelance writer and editor specializing in environmental issues. If you have comments, questions, ideas, or would like to submit a blog of your own, feel free to contact Tim Kelly at [email protected]