Health and Climate Change: What Is At Stake, What Can Be Done? 2016 Training Recap

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Fracking fields near agricultural land on the Fort Berthold Reservation, North Dakota, USA – Photo by Emily Arasim

Compiled by Emily Arasim, WECAN Communications Coordinator

On March 16, diverse women for climate justice united for the first session of the 2016 series of online U.S Women’s Climate Justice Initiative Education and Advocacy trainings presented by the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN International).

‘Health and Climate Change: What Is At Stake, What Can Be Done?’ featured four outstanding women leaders discussing the latest science and news on the climate change and health impacts that are effecting everyone; stories and solutions from frontline and Indigenous communities exposed to toxic pollution; and tools and strategies for engaging in education, advocacy, and direct action campaigns around health and climate issues in local communities, and at the national and international level.

Osprey Orielle Lake, Executive Director of WECAN International, opened the training will comments on the vital nature of women as climate leaders, and spoke to the training goal of building and empowering a strong constituency of women in the US taking bold action on climate change.

Osprey pointed to education, advocacy and action around matters of community, children and familial health as a powerful window through which we can demonstrate the reality, urgency and injustice of the climate crisis, and thus catalyze meaningful action from concerned allies across the globe.

Dr. Sylvia Hood Washington took the floor as the first speaker of the day. Dr. Hood Washington is an interdisciplinary scholar, project engineer and environmental health scientist with over 25 years of experience working with grassroots activists concerned with environmental and health inequalities tied to industrial operations.

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Dr. Sylvia Hood Washington

Her vital work has included time directing a project which utilized the oral history of black Catholics in Chicago and the input of physicians, engineers and theologians to develop relevant environmental literacy and educational material promoting environmental justice among marginalized urban communities, as well as work as the Principle Investigator for a grant developing and utilizing GIS models to examine environmental health disparities tied to sewage infrastructures in the Great Lakes region. Currently, she serves as Co-Advisor on the Environmental Justice Advisory Board of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and as Editor in Chief of the Environmental Justice Journal.

Dr. Hood Washington provided an overview of the climate impacts effecting global communities and residents of Illinois communities, with a focus on asthma, particulate matter and pollutants, and heat waves and heat related illnesses.

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In her reflections, Dr. Hood Washington commented upon her time working during COP21 climate negotiations in Paris in December 2015, drawing attention to the important movement she witnessed being built around people uniting to listen to and respond to the poignant frontline stories of those who are experiencing the human and health impacts of a changing climate on a daily basis.

Through her presentation and the question and answer session, she also helped navigate issues of environmental racism, discussing connections between economic inequality and severity of exposure to pollution and other climate impacts.

“Who is bearing the costs of our lifestyle?”, she questioned, prompting participants to reflect on the double violence faced by many low income, immigrant, black and Indigenous communities across the US and the world, who experience the frontline impacts of pollution and extraction sources near their homes, as well as the effects of inadequate services, infrastructure and support during times of climate disaster and stress.

In her closing remarks, Dr. Hood Washington drew attention to the US Clean Power Plan as an important tool with which we must all engage to push for government action and environmental and social justice for all.

Cherri Foytlin, freelance journalist/photographer, speaker, artist, activist and mother of six living in south Louisiana, spoke next.

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Cherri Foytlin pictured at a direct action during the United Nations COP21 climate negotiations in Paris, France – Photo by Emily Arasim

Cherri is of Dine, African-American and Latina descent, and has been a leading voice for the health and ecosystems of Gulf Coast, and for global climate justice and solutions, leading and participating in thousands of international, national and local forums, events, protests and direct actions, including a 2011 walk to Washington D.C. from New Orleans (1,243 miles) to call for action to stop the BP drilling disaster. Cherri is a founding member of the Gulf Coast Chapter of The Mother’s Project – Mother’s for Sustainable Energy and Idle No More Gulf Coast, and has recently taken on a position as State Director with Bold Louisiana. She is the author of ‘Spill It! The Truth about the Deep Water Horizon Oil Rig Explosion’, and a regular contributor to http://www.BridgetheGulfProject.org, the Huffington Post, and other publications.

Her powerful presentation focused on climate and health impacts in the Gulf Coast region, where hundreds of acres of land are sinking into the ocean due to rising seas, climate and extreme weather disasters, and fossil fuel infrastructure which cuts channels into the regions critical wetlands and other fragile living systems.

As a result of years of toxic industry and environmental destruction, south Louisiana has one of the highest cancer rates in the United States. Cherri spoke to the dire health effects being felt amongst costal communities in the wake of the BP Gulf oil spill, including cancer, neurological disease, skin problems and respiratory issues that are a result of both the initial spill, and the toxic dispersants sprayed in the aftermath (see video resource – The Rising: Connecting Human Health and Oil Operations).

In addition to the damages done by the BP spill and the many industrial sites strewn across the Gulf region, she also drew attention to the growing effects of insect borne diseases, including zikia and other tropical virus once rare, but now appearing throughout changing ecosystems of the US.

Cherri presented critical information about unfolding plans to lease an additional 43 million acres of Gulf waters for oil drilling this year, followed by another 47 million in 2017 – all despite the clear and devastating human and environmental impacts, and the regions growing vulnerability to severe storms and climate disasters.

Cherri ended her presentation discussing the critical No New Leases campaign being led to block offshore drilling leasing plans in the Gulf, and a successful recent community organizing campaign led to remove a fracking well built next to her sons school.

She discussed the goals of the local community and Earth protection movement, which parallel the growing global call to #KeepItInTheGround, with action aiming to end all new oil leases and build a just renewable energy transition with powered by energy coops and a new economy industry by and for the people.

“This is not about if we can win, it is about when we win, because at a certain point the scale will tip. And I think it already has in some ways – they cannot deny us clean air, they can no longer deny us clean water – and they sure can’t deny our babies a clean future, especially as they rise to defend it themselves,” Cherri concluded, handing the floor to fellow presenter Pramilla Malick.

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Pramilla Malick

Pramilla Malick represents Protect Orange County and is the founder of Stop the Minisink Compressor Station. She is a journalist, blogger, mother, and grassroots community organizer working ceaselessly to expose and prevent the damages caused by the expansion of fracking and gas infrastructure in her community in upstate New York.

Through her presentation, Pramilla shared her towns experience and her work, demonstrating the vital role that each one of us can play in exposing and working to transform the social and environmental violations happening across our communities.

Four years ago, Pramilla’s upstate New York community was targeted for construction of a gas compressor station, part of a massive chain of infrastructure needed to extract and transport natural gas, much of which is now coming from hydraulic fracking.

“We realized our community was standing on the precipice of a local health and climate change emergency,” Pramilla recalled, explaining that compressor stations, needed every 40 to 100 miles along a gas pipeline, are a source of many dangerous volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxide, and methane emissions.

Compelled to action by the dangers facing her town, Pramilla began an ongoing campaign documenting the health impacts being felt by families around the compressor and metering stations, including rashes, nosebleeds, headaches and other signs of more serious long term physical and neurologic damage which have led many of those residents who are able to abandon their homes and move.

She emphasized that all communities across the US should be vigilant and ready to act to prevent construction and/or document violations stemming from similar infrastructure, being proposed in many states as a ‘bridge fuel’ away from coal.

“We are supposed to be on a path to a just transition, but instead governments are trying to embrace these false solutions,” she explained, framing the continued expansion of fracked gas as a violation of our human rights, right to clean air and water, and the rights of future generations to a livable future.

Perry Sheffield, Environmental Pediatrician, Public Health professional and assistant professor in the departments of pediatrics and preventive medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, spoke next.

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Dr. Perry Sheffield presents on fossil fuels and children’s environmental health. Photo source.

Dr. Sheffield is Deputy Director of the EPA Region II Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit and Lead Investigator for the Queens Vanguard Center of the National Children’s Study. She conducts diverse research on the health impacts of climate change and public understanding of these issues with a particular focus on children. Her publications include, ‘Emerging roles of health care providers to mitigate global warming impacts: A perspective from East Harlem, New York’, and ‘Modeling of Regional Climate Change Effects on Ground-Level Ozone and Childhood Asthma’.

Dr. Sheffield’s presentation focused on children’s health and climate change, providing a harrowing look into the impacts being felt by developing babies, infants and young children, who beginning in the womb, are faced with a host of challenges amplified by intensifying pollution and environmental degradation.

According to Dr.Sheffield, apart from injuries, the principal causes of illness, hospitalization and death among children in America today are asthma, cancer, neuro-developmental disabilities, obesity and diabetes, and birth defects – all conditions related to industrial toxins and the condition of our climate, food and water systems.

Dr. Sheffield drew attention to climate-health impacts including those from increased extreme weather events, wildfire, decreased air quality, worsened allergies, threats to mental health, declines in nutrition and food quality, and illnesses transmitted by food, water, and disease-carriers such as mosquitoes and ticks.

She also shared some of the strides made in protecting children’s health and the integrity of our living Earth – including incredible drops in levels of lead exposure, decreased air pollution in many major US towns and cities, and growing education and advocacy around impacts on children, and the dire need for action to revitalize healthy food access, active lifestyles, and clean energy systems.

For more detailed information on this topic, please see our two-part ‘Health and Climate Change’ 2015 blog series:

Training Resources:

Learn more and join future U.S Women’s Climate Justice Initiative online Education and Advocacy trainings: wecaninternational.org/pages/us-climate-initiative

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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