One night a few weeks ago, I was preparing to depart for Chicago for four days of nearly 24/7 public health events. I had just changed out of my Halloween costume, packed my toothbrush, set my alarm for 5 a.m., and started counting Z’s, when my cell phone lit up. On the line was ecoAmerica board member, actor, and environmentalist Ed Begley, Jr., kindly checking in to confirm final details for his opening speech at the APHA 2015 Annual Meeting.
Uncharacteristically chipper upon being rousted from sleep, I had to explain to my husband that I happily took the call because it was from my latest “climate crush.” Typically, my professional “crushes” trend more towards the geeky and earnest sort that populate much of the health world. That said, I was admittedly feeling a little star-struck over the good fortune of getting to work with Ed, when he stepped up to help inspire APHA’s members to lead on climate solutions. It’s hard to resist a respected actor who is willing to leverage his celebrity to advocate for deeper engagement on the critical issue that you spend your days (and nights) thinking about. And besides, as “Dr. Victor Ehrlich” from TV’s St. Elsewhere, I figured Ed simultaneously checked three compelling boxes: actor, “doctor,” and environmental champion.
As I came to know Ed as a person during preparations for the Annual Meeting, my generalized celebrity buzz shifted to something far more grounded. From the get-go, it was clear that for Ed, this issue was genuinely important, and he was willing to do whatever he could to help make it more important to others.
For starters, despite a filming schedule change that required Ed to take a red eye to keep his APHA commitment, he never wavered in his enthusiasm for coming to Chicago. When offered VIP transportation to and from the airport, Ed insisted on staying true to a low climate footprint, and took public transit, despite an arrival in the wee hours of the morning.
And when it came to the content of his speech, Ed first wanted to learn about all the ways that APHA had been steadily working for years to elevate the public health and climate change connection. He invested considerable time with our team, APHA Executive Director Dr. Georges Benjamin, and the APHA staff to seek input for his talk. Acknowledging that he was no public health expert, Ed expressed a strong desire and hope that he could instead affirm the critical role public health professionals play in communicating with the public, and that their leadership was needed to help more people understand that climate change is a very real and growing personal and community health issue.
During his Chicago speech, Ed shared that he first waded into environmental issues back in the 1970’s not to “save the whales,” but because the L.A. smog impeded his health. This prevented him from riding his bike and enjoying other outdoor recreation. He went on to highlight how much credit our public health leaders deserved for helping mobilize the public to support policy changes to address the air quality. He singled out public health champions such as the American Lung Association and local public health departments, whose credible findings had helped sway public opinion and demands for change. As an environmental advocate, Ed reminded us that simple things like walking, biking or using public transit are not only good for our health, and often, our wallets, but also help to reduce climate change.
Ed also talked about his famous, but pragmatic actor father, Ed Begley Sr., and how he called into question Ed’s early years of environmental protest. Ed Sr. said that while it was admirable to express what he was against, real change could only come from identifying and pushing for solutions.
When the first Earth Day commenced in 1970 around the time of Ed’s father’s passing, Ed marked this confluence of events with a commitment to shift his energy towards the pursuit of real-world solutions from that day forward. For an accounting of his early experiences as an environmental change-agent (and quite the green “crush”), watch Ed’s speech and hear the great story he tells about his date with “Laverne and Shirley’s” Cindy Williams in his electric car.
Reflecting back to big air-quality improvements in Los Angeles within his lifetime, Ed finished his speech in Chicago with a strong message of hope and efficacy that he insisted was still meaningful today, “As a young boy living in Los Angeles during the 50’s and 60’s, smog seared my lungs every day. Today, it’s better. We did that! And we can still work together to make a huge difference with climate change and protect our health and the health of future generations.”
Ed’s empowering message that the victories of the past can encourage us to advance collective efforts on climate and health today was reflected throughout APHA’s 142nd Annual Meeting:
- APHA’s governing council passed an updated climate change and human health policy statement, encouraging health agencies to reduce their own carbon footprint and calling for health, medical, and even K-12 education, to include the health effects of climate change.
- APHA formally launched its partnership with Climate for Health and its “#Climate Changes Health” red ribbon campaign to encourage all meeting participants to more deeply explore and learn about how climate change impacts the work of health professionals.
- 2015 offered over 30 climate change sessions and events - including the first ever cross sector panel discussion hosted by ecoAmerica to take “A Look at How Other Sectors Play a Role in Addressing Climate Change and Health in the US”. Other sessions spanned public health law, food security, and worker training.
- Dr. Jonathan Patz launched and promoted the first free and internationally available online climate and health Coursera course: Climate Change Policy and Public Health. The latest tally indicates over 100,000 have signed up. Aligned with Ed’s opening comments, Dr. Patz took every opportunity to broadcast that the course intentionally focused upon the multiple health benefits provided by policies and initiatives to reduce emissions and promised a “way forward” to climate solutions for all.
- Our Climate for Health exhibit booth saw steady traffic all week long, with notable numbers of visitors from Florida, Hawaii, North Carolina, and other vulnerable coastal states. We also saw many ‘next generation” heath leaders advocating for more climate education, and as testimony to the growing relevancy of the topic throughout APHA, even a few veterinarians, eager to share how climate change and more frequent droughts were impacting the health of farm animals.
Back home in D.C. my next writing assignment is to thank Ed personally for his generous and timely contribution to a 2015 Annual Meeting that saw the unprecedented integration of climate change across a far broader set of issues and platforms than ever before. I cannot wait to share the ground-breaking news that the overarching theme for APHA’s 2017 Annual Meeting in Atlanta will be, “Climate Change: Public Health’s Global Challenge.”
It is incredibly significant that the climate and health connection has broken through to the extent that it was chosen as the unifying focus for the world’s largest public health conference – a gathering that typically engages well over 13,000 participants. APHA members and staff are already dreaming big to execute on the theme by optimizing every opportunity to echo Ed’s confidence that we can shift faster than we might imagine, and that the time is upon us to move toward what works as the field takes a big step forward to “walk the walk and talk the talk” about the need for climate and health solutions.
Actually, the hour is late, so perhaps I’ll just take a shortcut and give Ed a call instead to share this exciting news. I’m sure my husband will understand the urgency.
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