Everyone has a role in advocating for action on climate change.

“You don’t need letters behind your name to use science to advance policy,” said Ans Irfan, a DrPH student at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health and an adjunct professor of public health, who spoke at a Monday morning session at APHA’s 2019 Annual Meeting and Expo in Philadelphia. “If you’re coming from a community, you’re already an expert on your community’s needs.”

The session, “Emerging Leaders: Climate and Health Equity,” featured perspectives from four emerging leaders in the climate, health and equity space. Irfan kicked things off by posing a simple question to the standing room-only audience: “Why do advocacy?” 

“Because we want to bring about structural change,” he answered. “But if you think climate change is an existential crisis, you can’t write one letter or send out one tweet. Squeaky wheel advocacy, not Band-Aid advocacy, is what’s going to build a social movement that demands action.”

During a presentation on building more climate-wise communities and inclusive healthy places, Stephanie Gidigbi, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, noted that more than 80% of Americans live in cities and nearby suburbs. She told session attendees that by focusing on local-level action, advocates can better tackle the interconnected and universal challenges of climate change and community vitality.

“We need to take into consideration our physical environment and its legacy of race and class,” Gidigbi said. “If we continue to do the same thing we’ve been doing, we’re going to worsen the challenges our communities face from an equity, economic and social standpoint. When you think about policy and practices, it’s important to think about who is benefitting and who is impacted.”

Speaking on a just transition to a clean energy future, Emma Zinsmeister, of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said: “As we bring together the public health community with those who have the power to decide how our energy is produced and used, we have a wonderful opportunity to drive a future that keeps equity in mind.” 

She also advocated for advancing clean energy as a public health strategy.

“We can uplift communities that really need access to the benefits of these strategies,” said Zinsmeister. “That is if we think holistically about what change means, what benefit means, and who’s receiving those benefits.”

Speaking on the power of partnerships, Mark Shimamoto, of the American Geophysical Union, called for building a stronger bridge between science and advocacy. 

“Our 60,000 members worldwide are doing this, not just through scientific production, but by getting out of the lab and into the community,” he told attendees. “We’re forging strong partnerships that use science to address the cascading effects of climate change and working to co-create a better future.” 

Surili Patel, deputy director of APHA’s Center for Public Health Policy, closed out the presentations, noting that APHA is working to ensure a diversity of voices are considered and included at APHA’s Center for Climate, Health and Equity, which launched at last year’s Annual Meeting.

“As one of the biggest public health threats today, climate change is also a health equity issue,” Patel said. “It’s also a complex, interdisciplinary challenge that requires a network of innovative, cross-sectoral solutions. So how do we advance action on climate change with health equity in mind?”