Get to Know a Climate Champion: Sandra Whitehead

By path2positive

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. April's theme is Transportation and Healthy Community Design. (Answers are an edited composite of information shared with us.)

This month's champion is Sandra Whitehead, director of program and partnership development for the National Environmental Health Association, where she and her team of subject-matter experts work to build the capacity of environmental health professionals. NEHA's  programs include:climate change, drinking water safety, health policy, and food safety.

Sandra, what drew you to the Learning Institute?

I have been involved with climate and health issues since 2007, when I worked for the state health department in Florida. We knew that climate was affecting health, but the science could only show correlations, not direct impacts. The science has gotten very specific since then. I’m always interested in learning the newest research, and the Institute instructors were national leaders in the area. I was also interested in learning how to better translate the science into useful ideas or communication tools for the more than 5,000 environmental health professionals NEHA serves.

How would you summarize your Learning Institute experience, and what were your takeaways from the course?

I was pleased to participate in the Learning Institute. The communication tools were especially useful in thinking about how to engage our members around climate change. It’s difficult to talk about the subject, especially when our membership is made up of folks from across the political spectrum. In particular, I gained insight on how to formulate messages around climate and health that would resonate with our members. I also benefitted from the understanding that other participants had trouble with crafting effective messages as well, and it’s not just a lack of understanding on my part.

How do you plan to apply what you’ve learned?

I’ve already begun to implement the steps to messaging and we’ve restyled our climate and health web page using the principles shared at the Institute.

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

Knowing the links between climate and health is important as we in public health talk about personal behaviors. Climate impacts health in profound and subtle ways. Think about your transportation choices. When you are able to bike or walk to destinations, you are not only getting part of your daily exercise, but also decreasing your greenhouse gas emissions, which directly affect air quality for those living near roads. Taking transit has similar effects. People who take the bus or train walk an average of one-quarter to one-half a mile to or from their stop, so you increase your wellness as well as minimizing your personal impact on those who may have asthma or other respiratory issues. 

How would you recommend health professionals engage others on climate change?

First, know the research. It’s easy for people to say that the links are “opinion.” There is 20 years of solid science behind what we do. Second, when you talk about climate and health, talk about how it impacts people. It’s easier to relate to how extreme heat effects impact our elders than to talk about melting ice caps and polar bears. Lastly, have good stories to share. Don’t talk about this issue in the abstract. Relate it to something people can feel, like asthma. Everyone knows someone with asthma who has issues breathing when the pollen counts are high. Talk about these linkages in a concrete and personal way.

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

NEHA will have a whole day of programming at our annual educational conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, from July 10 to July 13. We have sessions ranging from communicating with decision makers to how climate is impacting health and economics in the Great Lakes Regioon. We’re very excited about the track and hope readers will consider joining us.



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 her at




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