Health & Climate: Changing the Narrative – Training Recap Day Two

Blog by Emily Arasim, WECAN International Communications Coordinator

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On June 25, 2015 the U.S Women’s Climate Justice Initiative held the second day of an online education and advocacy training, ‘Health & Climate Change: What Is At Stake, What Can Be Done?’. A detailed review of day one is available here.

Day two featured four outstanding women leaders, Susan E. Pacheco M.D of the University of Texas, Pandora Thomas of EarthSeed Consulting LLC & the Black Permaculture Network, Angela Monti Fox of The Mothers Project, and Hannah Vogel with Climate Nexus.

Osprey Orielle Lake, co-Founder and Executive Director of the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN International), spoke first, welcoming participants to the call and providing a brief background of WECAN International’s framework and vision for this training and other related work.

According to Osprey, the training call aims to bring together women from diverse groups across the US, acknowledging differing experiences and struggles, and working to build a powerful women’s voice for action on climate change. The training, and WECAN’s work in general, is centered on a climate justice framework, which means dedication to the communities who experience climate and health impacts “first and worst”.

“While we are all exposed to environmental degradation, we must take into consideration that frontline and Indigenous communities bear the biggest brunt of health and climate impacts, and that the only way to change this is through our involvement and action,” Osprey explained.

She noted that genuine action on climate change requires “systemic social and political analysis,” and asserted that women’s voices must be heard if we are to develop effective, long-term solutions. Osprey closed her introduction by inviting all participants to join WECAN International for a Global Women’s Climate Justice Day of Action, happening on September 29. Learn more about the Day of Action here.

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Dr. Susan E. Pacheco

Dr. Susan E. Pacheco took the floor as the first training presenter. Dr. Pacheco is an Associate Professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center specializing in pediatric asthma, allergies, and immunology. She is also the founder of the Alliance Of Health Professionals Against Climate Change and the Texas Coalition for Climate Change Awareness, and serves as the health representative for the Climate Science Rapid Response Team. Susan’s presentation, ‘Children in a Changing World: Silent Victims of Climate Change’, focused on climate-related threats to maternal and children’s health.

According to Susan, 88% of the worldwide disease burden falls on children under five years of age. Some of the things that make children especially vulnerable include the fact that they ‘breathe more air and drink more water’, have immature and developing organs, lungs, and nervous systems, are at a stage of rapid change, spend more time outdoors, need more ‘emotional shelter’, and face a lifetime of exposure and climate stress.

Dr. Pacheco discussed air pollution as a health impact stemming directly from fossil fuel use, and touched on a few more subtle health problems with severe impacts on children. Changing climate patterns are causing increased pollen production in plants, which is worsening allergies and causing respiratory problems. Rising temperatures are affecting ozone production, which changes air quality and has increased the prevalence of asthma. 300 million people worldwide suffer from asthma. In U.S 20 million people are afflicted, 7 million of them children.

Echoing calls made during day one of the training, Susan pointed out that very little research has been done on the mental health impacts of climate change, which are thought to include apathy, depression, social stress, and PTSD, to name but a few. As a poignant example, Susan drew attention to the 160,000 children displaced and 15,000 children who did not go to school during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Dr. Pacheco also spoke on maternal health, discussing studies connecting women’s exposure to air pollution with autism risk in their children. She highlighted long-term brain damage and developmental issues as effects of exposure to industrial pollutants and fossil fuels during pregnancy, and commented upon pregnant women’s increased vulnerability during heat waves and other extreme weather events.

Susan presented passionately on issues of justice, reminding participants that the burden is not distributed evenly, with socio-economic background determining children’s relative exposure. She spoke to the fact that those who produce the least carbon emissions are the most effected, whether we are discussing differential impacts on children and adults, or between high and low-income communities and countries. According to her presentation, there are more than 700 million children living in the ten countries most vulnerable to climate change.

Critically, Dr. Pacheco explained that re-framing the climate conversation to bring health impacts to the forefront has the potential to inspire meaningful action like perhaps nothing else could.

“The moment that we change our conversation to bring health to the climate change debate our action will change,” she asserted, describing how health discussions can make climate change more relatable and bring an even greater sense of urgency to our response efforts.

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Pandora Thomas

Pandora Thomas spoke next. Pandora is a teacher, writer, designer, speaker and co-Founder of Earthseed Consulting LLC, a holistic consulting firm working to expand opportunities for sustainable living to diverse communities across the U.S. Pandora’s other projects include the Black Permaculture Network and Pathways to Resilience, a program working to engage people exiting the prison system in permaculture concepts and practices.

Pandora spoke with training participants about building community resilience and helping engage people in climate change and health issues by “meeting people where they’re at” and creating relevant, appropriate, and community led projects and initiatives.

“Where we are is very urgent, but ripe full of opportunities,” she began, introducing the West African concept of Sankofa, which translates roughly to ‘we must know from where we came in order to move forward’, used here in reference to the need to build on centuries of wisdom and tradition as we move forward in addressing climate change and its dire health impacts.

Pandora shared a powerful discussion of the disproportionate climate-health impacts felt by African-American communities across the U.S.

Pandora shared research that 71% of African-Americans live in counties that violate federal air pollutions standards. 78% live within 30 miles of coal-fired plant, and they are also more likely to live near landfills or incinerators. African-Americans have a 36% higher rate of asthma and die from this condition at twice the rate as Caucasians Americans. They are also at greater risk of heat-related deaths, (which will increase by at least 90% due to climate change) due in part to the fact that they are more likely to live in inner city areas. African-Americans are also more likely to reside in coastal areas prone to hurricanes, flooding, and sea level rise, and experience food insecurity at a rate 25.7% higher than the national average.

Pandora also drew connections between climate vulnerability, economic insecurity, and crime and violence, presenting the story of the Pathways to Resilience program as an example of how we can tackle the nexus of climate impacts in a constructive way.

In sharing the work of Pathways to Resilience, Pandora introduced the concept of permaculture as a key tool for restoring the health of the planet and people. Permaculture is a design system and way of living based on observing how natural systems work and seeking to emulate these patterns and principles in all that we do. Among many things, permaculture includes ecologic farming, soil and plant stewardship, green building, Earth-centered economics, water conservation and care, reduced consumption, and clean energy– making it a potent tool for build the kind of world we want – one that insures health for people and planet.

Some of Pandora’s other insights for addressing climate and health impacts within a justice framework include “connect to that which gives you strength”, “think of our potential instead of being mired in the problems”, “feed what you want to see grow”, and draw upon and uplift the existing experiences and solutions of frontline communities.

Angela Monti Fox spoke next. Angela is a mental health professional and founder of Mothers Project, an organization established in 2012 in reaction to the expansion of fracking and natural gas exploitation in New York and Pennsylvania.

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Angela Monti Fox

“[They are] drilling in everyone’s back yard and creating a public health crisis without the public actually knowing it,” Angela explained, noting that similar stories are repeated across the country, “poisoned water and sick children.”

Angela described how extractive industries and other big polluters are allowed to slide-by, dumping toxins into water and claiming that chemicals are diluted to such small quantities that they cannot affect people. The Mothers Project and countless other groups and communities across the world however, are testifying otherwise.

Angela cited a 1996-2009 study in Colorado which followed pregnant women living near gas wells and found birth defects and a 30% greater chance of these women giving birth to a preterm and/or underweight babies. It is being revealed that this kind of exposure can also result in endocrine disruption and DNA damage, meaning that children could be affected for life.  Angela also noted disruptions of children’s ability to “learn, love, bond”.

Angela and the Mothers Project team wrote and sent a letter to Michelle Obama asking for her support in addressing fracking and its health impacts on children. They received no reply, but continue undaunted in their work to expose and prevent these dangerous health impacts.

“A child centered model would bring the entire fossil fuels industry down in a massive action,” Angela explained, expressing her sentiment, much like Susan’s, that the public would care deeply if they understood the depth of the climate-health crisis. Mothers can and should be at the forefront of the movement to educate and inspire action.

We have the power and the science to shift our energy system, Susan concluded, “do we have the power in the people?”

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Hannah Vogel

Hannah Vogel, an associate with Climate Nexus, spoke as the fourth and final presenter of day two. Hannah presented an overview of an important climate and health report that was released just days before the June 25th training. The ‘Lancet Commission on Health & Climate Change’ frames climate disruption as the most pressing global health risk of the century, while conversely drawing attention to action on climate change as our greatest opportunity to address health problems worldwide, with immediate and long-term benefits.

Hannah touched on a theme highlighted by many presenters over the course of the two-day training –we simply must start paying a lot more attention to what our energy decisions mean for our health. According to Hannah’s overview of the Lancet report, we need to fundamentally shift our energy model and implement an ‘emergency-style’ response to climate change.

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During the training Q & A session presenters and participants returned to the subject of the Lancet Report to discuss concerns that, while the report makes powerful calls for action to shut-down coal based energy production, it does not make similar statements on fracking and natural gas, two toxic energy sources whose major health impacts were reviewed by Angela Monti Fox and other speakers during training day one. WECAN International will continue to review the Lancet Report and speak out about discrepancies in an otherwise powerful and important document.

Other topics discussed during the Q & A session include; why we need to pay attention to changing consumer behavior and companies visions rather than just policy, the importance of “finding peoples entry points” and framing climate and health discussions in a positive, inclusive way, and how we can create bridges between diverse movements for justice, referring specifically to the devastating Charleston shooting and Black Lives Matter movement.

In reflecting on the two days of ‘Health & Climate Change: What Is At Stake, What Can Be Done?’ training a few key themes become apparent:

  • Children, women and elders are disproportionately vulnerable to health problems stemming from climate impacts.
  • Low-income communities are more likely to be exposed to toxic industrial sites, fossil fuel infrastructure, and extreme weather events.
  • The fossil fuel industry is the root source of much pollution and climate change-related health problems – addressing health impacts thus means working towards 100% renewable energy.
  • Direct action at the local community level is effective and we all have the power and potential to get involved.
  • Re-framing climate change conversations to reflect pervasive health impacts is central to insuring deep, sustained action on climate change.
  • Education is the key – it is up to all of us to raise our voices and get out in our communities to help connect the dots and re-frame the climate change conversation to include critical health impacts.

For information on future WECAN International education and advocacy calls, please click here.

Health & Climate Change Day Two Training Resources

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