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Environmental Factor, July 2015

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Climate justice conference focuses on needs of vulnerable populations

By John Yewell

Wanda Jones

In her keynote address, Jones described the HHS Environmental Justice Working Group and its priorities. “HHS considers climate change to be one of the top public health challenges of our time,” she said. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Sandra Howard

Sandra Howard is senior environmental health advisor in the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health and one of the key organizers of the conference. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

John Balbus

“Climate change is global, climate impacts are local,” said John Balbus, M.D., NIEHS senior advisor for public health, who delivered a keynote address. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Jalonne White-Newsome

    “We need to make sure that [evaluations] happen,” said White-Newsome. “We have to make sure that the guidance and tools that are being developed [to integrate environmental justice concerns into government actions] are used.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Sacoby Wilson

    Sacoby Wilson, Ph.D., from the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health gave a wide-ranging talk, touching on issues such as food access and the sovereignty of tribal communities. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Archila

    “As we’re talking about funding, as we’re talking about research, we cannot forget our humanity,” Archila said. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • conference members

    The conference format included breakout sessions, such as the one above, during which participants dug deeper into issues of policy development and dissemination; education and training; research and data collection, analysis, and utilization; and services. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

More than 100 scientists, public health professionals, and community members from across the nation converged on the NIEHS campus June 8-9 for the 2015 Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Climate Justice Conference, “Responding to Emerging Health Effects.”

The event, organized by the HHS Environmental Justice Working Group, attracted attendees from federal, state, and local agencies, as well as representatives of community nonprofit groups and unions, with 55 more participating via webcast.

Risks affect the most vulnerable

In a keynote address, Wanda Jones, Dr.P.H., Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health at HHS, described the populations at greatest risk from the effects of climate change. “[They are] the most vulnerable among us,” she said, “children, the elderly, those living in poverty, those with underlying health conditions, people in certain geographic areas, and those already bearing a disproportionate burden of environmental exposures.”

Her comments echoed those of Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training. She said the conference was a place to share information, to “reduce the health risks for the most vulnerable populations, both in the United States and around the world.”

According to Mustafa Ali, of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the broad representation at the conference would help bring about the necessary holistic approach to addressing climate change impacts on communities. Ali leads the federal Interagency Working Group on environmental justice.

Community perspectives

Representatives of community organizations provided a grassroots perspective, beginning with Jalonne White-Newsome, Ph.D., director of federal policy for West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT) for Environmental Justice. “We need to try to integrate and use research to inform policy, and [to] educate those folks that have the purse strings in their hands, who can in turn help community folks to survive,” she said.

Arturo Archila, an activist educator and job placement specialist with Make the Road New York, said the community he represents was disproportionately affected by Superstorm Sandy, and the recovery process offered important lessons. “What really impressed me post-Sandy was that the best solutions [to linking response teams and local communities] came from the community itself,” he said.

However, community groups face hurdles when participating in research and response efforts, according to Elizabeth Yeampierre, J.D., executive director of UPROSE in Brooklyn and a former member of the NIEHS National Environmental Health Sciences Advisory Council. “Funders don’t always understand the breadth and complexity of what it takes to engage the community,” she said.

Yeampierre underlined the value of communities such as the one she represents, when it comes to issues of sustainability. “If you come from struggle, you have lived sustainably,” said Yeampierre. “Repurpose, reuse, recycle — there’s nothing more sustainable than a poor person.”

Tools for leaders and community members alike

Epidemiologist George Luber, Ph.D., chief of the Climate and Health program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, described the National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network, to help leaders anticipate effects of climate change on local health.

Another a set of powerful tools for researchers and decision makers was available for conference participants to explore. Mark Shimamoto, of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, demonstrated the Climate Resilience Toolkit, which was promoted in March as part of the President’s Climate Data Initiative (see story). Shimamoto also led participants through the climate portion of the website, which provides hundreds of databases for analyzing climate trends and effects.

As the workshop drew to a close, Joseph (Chip) Hughes, director of the NIEHS Worker Training Program and one of the key organizers of the conference, reflected on what was achieved. “This event went way beyond my dreams,” he said “in terms of creating a community of practice around this issue.”

A report will be posted on the conference website.

(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison)

Luber infographic

Balbus shared a graphic from Luber detailing the drivers of climate change, center; the environmental consequences, middle ring; and associated human health effects, outside. (Photo courtesy of CDC)

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