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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For Our Children & All Generations: Health & Climate Change Training Recap Day One

Blog by Emily Arasim, WECAN International Communications Coordinator

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Human health and the health of the planet are inseparable. A constantly interacting cycle, our destruction and waste is stressing Mother Earth’s vital organs to the point of collapse, which in turn is causing epidemics of pollution and disaster related health problems in our communities.

Children, elders, and women are impacted with disproportionate severity – and low-income communities are often marginalized and placed directly in the path of toxic sites and extreme weather events. The topic of health and climate thus emerges as both an existential crisis, and as a question of deep social and environmental injustice.

On June 23, 2015 women from across the United States joined together to participate in the first day of ‘Health and Climate Change: What Is At Stake, What Can Be Done?’, an online education and advocacy training presented as part of the WECAN International U.S Women’s Climate Justice Initiative. Day one of the training featured Sheila Bushkin-Bedient, M.D. , Pramilla Malick, and Cherri Foytlin.

Osprey Orielle Lake, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Women’s Earth & Climate Action Network (WECAN International) opened the call and passed the floor to Dr. Sheila Bushkin-Bedient, M.D. of the Institute for Health & the Environment.

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Dr. Sheila Bushkin-Bedient

Shelia presented a broad overview of the myriad of health impacts emerging as a consequence of accelerating climate disruption. She began with a discussion of air pollution, which is characterized by ground level ozone, smog, and particulate matter accumulation. She cited health impacts including increases in asthma, allergies, cardiac and pulmonary disease, lung and heart related hospitalizations, diminished lung function, and premature deaths.

She also spoke about heat waves as a major climate related health concern, drawing attention to devastating cases emerging in Pakistan and India in recent weeks. May and June 2015 brought temperatures of 113- 119 degrees F to India, killing more than 2,500 people as of June 5th. On June 19, days before the training, extreme temperatures in Pakistan killed more than 260 people in just a few days.

Health impacts from heat waves include dehydration, heat stroke and exhaustion, as well as increased mortality rates and exacerbated heart problems. Urban dwellers experience even higher temperatures as a result of the ‘heat island’ effect – and children and the elderly are most vulnerable.

Extreme heat goes hand in hand with drought conditions, which stresses plant and animal communities and can lead to parched, failing food systems. The Western U.S has been experiencing intensifying impacts over the last decade– and at the global level, failing crops mean malnutrition, starvation, job and income loss, shortened life expectancy, compromised immune systems, and increased disease vulnerability.

Wildfires are another drought-related concern with direct impacts on air quality and heart and lung disease. A map generated on June 22, 2015 revealed twenty-four major fires burning in the US – thirteen of them in Alaska. As of June 28 there were at least 319 large and small fires burning in the state, a strikingly clear example of the wildly off-balance world we are faced with.

Sheila discussed floods and hurricanes next, citing impacts ranging from bodily injuries, acute illness and deaths, to increases in homeless populations and sickness from contaminated water and food sources. Changes in the range and characteristics of infectious vectors is another very real climate impact, with diseases like West Nile, Lyme disease, Dengue, Malaria, and Chikungunya all shifting and spreading.

Sheila’s presentation circled back to impacts on food systems as a key human health concern. She explained how the vitality and diversity of oceans and freshwater bodies are collapsing due to pollution, rising temperatures, and melt-water, and spelled out what this means for the wellbeing of the worlds waters and human health and nutrition.

Sheila concluded with comments on the psychological health impacts of floods, hurricanes, and other extreme weather events, which can include Autism spectrum disorder, PTSD, depression, anger, family conflict and separation, and even civil conflict and war. Reflecting on these deep climate impacts with Sheila was an enlightening and eye-opening experience.

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

Pramilla started by noting the painful irony of our situation. Faced with depleted resources and planetary stress, we have decided to use even more destructive techniques to unearth fossil fuels. She explained how these more violent forms of extraction are driving the health of the Earth and our communities along a parallel trajectory – towards more deadly and extreme impacts.

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Pramilla Malick

For the past two years her community has been living with a compressor station that pushes fracked natural gas along a large pipeline. According to Pramilla, compressor and metering stations are needed every 10 miles along many pipelines, placing millions of US residents in close proximity to dangerous, and even deadly infrastructure.

Pramilla quickly became aware that radioactive gas and liquid was seeping into the soil and being released into the air, and that at least 26 toxic chemicals (many known carcinogens) were being pumped through and around her community. As soon as she understood the dire implications of the compressor station, she began collecting testimony’s from neighbors and photographing the health impacts appearing among residents.

Pramilla documented rashes and skin irritations, nose bleeds, reparatory illness, nausea, vomiting, swollen joints, breathing difficulties, abdominal pain, organ damage, and neurological symptoms, all radiating out up to 150 miles from the station.

Reaffirming Shiela’s comments on young peoples heightened vulnerability, Pramilla drew attention to the fact that these exposures impact not just children’s immediate wellbeing, but also their long-term health and development.

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Mid-way through her presentation, Pramilla took our breath away with a shocking video of the compressor station in her community. At first nothing was visible, but when an infrared camera was switched on a massive plume of emissions became visible, rising up from the compressor like an uncontrollable fire.

She expressed deep concerned about the toxins and carcinogens that her community is breathing in directly, but also about the effects of bioaccumulation in soil and dairy products, which make up a large portion of the local economy and are distributed across the US.

Pramilla and allies also connected the dots between the toxins and the inhibition of agricultural crops, and observed that the constant noise from the station was driving away bats and insects central to pest control and natural ecosystem balance. Soon people in Pramilla’s town began packing up and walking away from their homes – a forced migration that often only the better-off can afford.

On the subject of justice, Pramilla reminded us, “We are all connected. We are connected by the pipelines that are poisoning us. We are connected by our water. We are connected by our air.”

She concluded with powerful comments on the fracking and natural gas industries, which are being promoted by the US government as a type of positive transition fuel. These are unacceptable false solutions she explained,

“We have to choose a different course. We cannot trade one poison for another…the system we have in place is simply not sustainable. It is acting on the bodies of our children as we speak. We as mothers must come together, nothing is more important than the health of our children.”

Cherri Foytlin joined the call as the third and final presenter of day one. Cherri is a mother of six living in Southern Louisiana. She hails from the Dene Nation, and is a photographer, speaker, Idle No More Gulf Coast member, and author of Spill It! The Truth about the Deep Water Horizon Oil Rig Explosion. Cherri spoke with training participants on health and climate impacts in her Gulf Coast home-region, where there have been five major hurricanes in the last five years.

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Cherri Foytlin

The area is a center of industry, with mega-ports and refineries lying directly in the path of extreme weather events. Major oil spills have poisoned the ocean waters and inland aquifers, exacerbating the health and environmental impacts of Hurricane Katrina and Rita as oil and chemical dispersants washed back onto the land and into peoples homes. Asthma, pneumonia, respiratory issues, and cancer have all been documented in people involved in Katrina cleanup efforts, and the true reach of the oil spill and hurricanes health impacts are only beginning to be revealed.

Despite the challenging conditions Cherri is facing in her community, her presentation was filled with a wealth of positive, uplifting insight into how we can all take action to engage with issues health and climate change.

She explained that we must not give up hope and should boldly “sound the alarm”- getting out on the street to talk with our friends and neighbors and help them see the connection between climate change, health, pollution and fossil fuel infrastructure. She asserted that we must continue to demand strong, meaningful action from public officials, but that we also must realize that real change happens only when people stand up, act, and push governments to step up to the plate as leaders.

Cherri commented on the need to strengthen our health systems, assess vulnerabilities, and take action to insure that health professionals have the training to deal with toxic exposure and climate disasters.

She also suggested policy action to require developers to prove how they will protect human and environmental health- with clear guidelines for shutting down projects if and when they cannot provide this evidence. Touching on an absolutely vital theme, Cherri declared that we must end the fossil fuel era and challenge “an archaic industry that is feeding on our health” and the health of the Earth as a whole.

Cherri also explained that working to actively build another vision is of the upmost importance, suggesting action to get renewable energy in homes and show people that a clean economy can support jobs and economic health. Thus far, her community has put solar panels on 26 homes, focusing on the elderly and low-income families first.

We were inspired by, and in full agreement with Cherri’s statements about the need to create a new culture and challenge the idea that our mission in life is to consume. She called for the re-building of a culture that respects the planet, sees reducing emissions as a source of great pride, and lifts up the stories of those who are on the frontlines of impacts and solutions.

During the Q & A session, presenters and participants reflected more on ways to get involved with critical health and climate issues.

Pramilla emphasized support for the transition to 100% renewable energy, an end to fossil fuel subsidies, and action to expose the fact that natural gas and fracking are not “bridge fuels”, but rather “bridges to catastrophe”.

“As mothers, we must tell policymakers that the health of our children comes first, and that clean air and water is a fundamental human right that cannot be compromised in any shape or form,” she explained.

Sheila shared hopeful information about ongoing work with the American Medical Association to call for legislation that requires comprehensive health impact assessments of existing and proposed infrastructure projects. Cherri asked participants to join her in speaking out about the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, building awareness and framing it as the climate and health disaster that it was.

Cherri provided a powerful statement to close the session,

“Inaction in the face of climate change and injustice is an act of violence towards our women and children and future generations. But the opposite of that, if you take that backwards, is that action for climate justice for all of us is an act of love. That is the most important thing because that is how we win… our love for eachother will win this, we can do this.”

Check back soon for a recap of day two of the ‘Health & Climate Change: What Is At Stake, What Can Be Done?’ training.

You can join our next training, ‘Women on the Frontlines of Climate Change: Resistance & Solutions’ on Wednesday, July 8. Click here for details.

Training Resources