[Recap] #ClimateChangesHealth: The Roles We Play

Future generations don’t have a voice unless we speak for them. It is our responsibility to do that.

— Dean Lynn Goldman

As scientists, researchers and scholars have learned more about the deleterious consequences of climate change — largely catalyzed by human behavior and activities — the link between these consequences and public health has become increasingly apparent. With that in mind, what roles can aspiring or practicing public health professionals play in climate mitigation and climate adaptation?

To help address this question, MPH@GW, the online Master of Public Health offered through the Milken Institute School of Public Health, recently co-hosted a panel with the American Public Health Association (APHA) in honor of National Public Health Week (NPHW).

Dr. Lynn Goldman, the Michael and Lori Milken Dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health, gave opening remarks and called on the public health community to take action.

“Now more than ever, we need students, faculty and others devoted to mitigating the negative health impacts of climate change. We must not go backwards,” she said. “We need the scientific evidence to be seen and heard and understood. We need to keep moving in the right direction to protect the health of everyone but especially at-risk populations.”

The event, inspired in part by the APHA’s Year of Climate Change and Health initiative, featured panelists who brought a range of perspectives to the discussion.

About the Panelists

For extended biographies, please visit the event page for this panel.

Opening Remarks

Lynn R. Goldman, MD, MS, MPH: Michael and Lori Milken Dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health; Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health.

Event Moderator

Surili Sutaria Patel, MS: Senior Program Manager, Environmental Health at American Public Health Association.

Panelists

  • Monique Baskin, MA: A Knauss fellow with the Arctic Research Program and a lecturer at the Milken Institute School of Public Health for a course on the social dimensions of climate change.
  • Jayce Hafner: A Domestic Policy Analyst for the Episcopal Church, where she represents the Church’s priorities on climate change and poverty to Congress.
  • Amanda Northcross, PhD: An assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health and the Department of Global Health where she studies the human health impacts of air pollution in both the developed and the developing world.
  • Steve Terry, MS: A Senior Project Coordinator in the Office of Environmental Resource Management at United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc. (USET)
  • Lise Van Susteren, MD: An American psychiatrist in private practice in Washington, D.C., with a special interest in the psychological effects of climate change.

Key Takeaways

Though the discussion incorporated a rich and diverse array of perspectives, the panel concurred on several central points.

Human need and environmental conversations are intrinsically linked.

A number of panelists work with closely with indigenous populations whose livelihoods, cultures and general well-being suffer as a result of climate change. Steve Terry spoke about the many American Indian communities that experience negative health effects spurred by climate change, such as increases in vector-borne diseases and wildfires. “What impacts the environment impacts health,” he said.

Jayce Hafner cited the current public health crises in Haiti, where climate change has threatened food security and exacerbated the nation’s virulent cholera epidemic.

“As faith advocates, we see climate change as a threat that is systematically destroying the lives of those in need,” she said. She emphasized the need for a long-term vision in approaching these challenges, or — as Rebecca Solnit famously quipped — “practice paying attention over long periods of time.”

Solutions from a mental health perspective are crucial.

The physiological effects of climate change consequences are well-documented, but it’s crucial for scientists, researchers and activists to consider the psychological ones as well — particularly for at-risk populations such as indigenous communities.

“No matter what happens to us physically, there’s already an emotional toll,” Lise Van Susteren observed in her initial remarks. “We’re already seeing the emotional toll [of climate change] — post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, a rise in aggression.” She also cited the increasingly clear link between air pollution and degenerative cognitive disorders, like dementia and Alzheimer’s.

No one group or sector can solve climate change.

Monique Baskin, who has worked with a variety of stakeholders and organizations to advance the work she does on behalf of ARP, urged attendees to remember that no one group or sector can solve climate change. Asking hard questions as they pertain to different populations requires a multifaceted, interprofessional effort by many sectors, from the faith community to the federal government to private industry.

“How do we combat the fear and the anger and confusion when there is a climate event? How do we work with religious communities?” Baskin asked. “How do we approach policies and programs that take the future into account? How do we preserve culture and tradition when we’re talking about rural communities? How do we combat food security?

Small actions can make a big impact.

Although climate change can seem insurmountable, the panelists agreed that even seemingly insignificant actions — from replacing plastic water bottles with reusable ones to using LED light bulbs — can make a big difference in the long run. Amanda Northcross spoke openly about the tension that exists between living comfortably and living sustainably.

“The thing that keeps popping into my mind is when we think about climate change [is that] it’s us living in this very unsustainable, unbalanced way. The way that we live and the lifestyles that we live — are they truly sustainable? Who is being damaged because of that?”

Hafner highlighted the importance of hard conversations, both with policymakers and with people who harbor opposing political or spiritual perspectives. “Cultivate deep and abiding friendships with people who are not coming from the same political viewpoint,” she advised. “Talk about environmental stewardship. We all want clean air and water. We can get there. Practice deep listening.”

Tell Us What You Think

The panel may be over, but the mission is not. How can everyone — from academics to policymakers to  professions that don’t directly intersect with climate change — work together to confront climate change? Tell us what you think on Twitter or Facebook. If you weren’t able attend the panel in person or via livestream, check out a recording of the event below.