Nursing and Climate Change
June 2013
David Vlahov

“Gov. urges nurses to help fight climate change.”

When I read that headline in the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this week, I thought: “What?”

But the more I pondered the headline, the stronger my belief that the population health impacts of climate change demand that nurses take a role in fighting this global threat.

After all, the regional weather variations associated with climate change – which include heat waves, extreme weather and alterations in precipitation that lead to regional droughts – have dramatic health impacts. One has only to look at the withering heat waves in Chicago, Philadelphia and Paris that took lives, especially those of the elderly and otherwise vulnerable. Hurricanes Irene and Sandy were two “storms of the century” that hit the New York City metropolitan area about 14 months apart.

On a global scale, we can see and anticipate not only increases in physical injuries and deaths related to extreme weather, but also changing ecologies that can increase water- and food-borne diseases, vector-borne diseases and the deleterious effects of food and water shortages such as malnutrition. Ultimately, the disruptions associated with population displacement and increasing poverty can lead to mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and major depression. And the disruption of health service delivery in major adverse weather events makes frontline responses more difficult to mount.

What actions can nurses take?

First, think global and act local. Fundamentally, nurses can learn and then practice and lead others on their personal and institutional practices, implementing the principles of reduce, reuse, recycle, recover and re-educate at home and in the workplace.

Second, when health is at stake, take an active role in bringing this to the public’s attention and advocating change. As an example, Ruth Malone, professor and chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and leader of the health policy track at UC San Francisco School of Nursing, published a commentary in this e-magazine titled “How Nurses Can Help Grow the Anti-Tobacco Industry” and has been a strong public anti-smoking advocate in many settings. Generally, health professionals – especially nurses, the most trusted profession in the United States, according to annual Gallup surveys – are highly credible. We should use that credibility to influence policymakers to review the environmental impact of proposed projects and to educate the public about the effects of climate change on health.

Such efforts are not new to nurses. The American Nurses Association (ANA) adopted a resolution on global climate change in 2008. Acknowledging the reality of climate change, the ANA called for a decrease in the contribution by the health care industry to global climate change, support of local policies that endorse sustainable energy sources, and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Their resolution calls upon nurses to speak out in a united voice and advocate for change on both individual and policy levels.

Both Barbara Burgel and Karen Duderstadt from our faculty have led the way by including climate change content in their courses over the last few years. Gov. Brown’s call to action points to the need to have nurses informed and prepared at nursing schools in environmental health, health policy and advocacy. This education on climate change is fundamental to nursing leading the way toward a healthier population.



The connection between climate change and health is very strong, and it hasn't been studied or reported nearly enough. It's good to hear that nursing courses are addressing this now, because as temperatures rise and disease patterns shift, it is becoming a more important factor in front-line nursing, especially for public health nurses.

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