Addressing the climate crisis: Lead where you are

By Rachel Kerr |

Rachel Kerr, DNP, RN, a member of Zeta Chapter at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, MN, USA, is working toward better health for people everywhere through Rachel Kerrher work with the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (ANHE). ANHE focuses on and advocates for solutions to environmental health issues that are affecting communities across the globe. Currently, Rachel works as a program coordinator for the Environmental Health Nurse Fellowship Program, which focuses on training nurses around the country to address environmental health issues at the community level. Here's a 5-in-5 (5 questions in a less than 5-minute read) with Rachel about how environmental health and the field of nursing are intricately linked.

Why link environmental health and/or the climate crisis with the field of nursing at all?
This is a great question! The climate crisis is one of the key issues of our time. Indeed, all the research is pointing to the fact that if we do not fully and swiftly address this crisis within the next 12 years, our civilization will face devastating impacts during this century. This means we have an urgent situation on our hands, and nurses are poised to help lead in addressing the climate crisis for a number of reasons. We’re the largest health profession by numbers in both the United States and the world; we’re highly trusted in the communities we serve (ranked #1 most trusted profession in the US-based Gallup poll 17 years running!); we’re systems-oriented; and we have generally good communication skills as well. These attributes make us ideal messengers and advocates for working toward a healthier climate.

Tell us a bit more about the Environmental Health Nurse Fellowship program you’re currently involved in.
The fellowship is a year-long program that was developed to enhance the capacity of nurses to work with communities in tackling environmental health challenges, including climate disruption and related health impacts, toxic chemical pollution, water contamination, and more. The program has a particular focus on environmental equity and justice, and we aim to address the disproportionate impact of environmental exposures on vulnerable groups. Fellows conduct projects in their communities that address a community-identified environmental health need and build support for community-driven solutions. They also host educational sessions for health professional colleagues on the topic of environmental health and their fellowship work.

Some nurses may do clinical work instead of focusing on research. Is there anything these nurses can do to assist in furthering the program’s focus?
Absolutely! In fact, many of the ANHE fellows are currently in clinical roles rather than research. Nurses of all specialties and roles are represented in the fellowship program, and we see diversity as a strength. Clinical nurses in particular tend to have highly developed skills in the areas of personal communication and building rapport, and these are both essential skills for building partnerships with communities. We need all of these nurses!

What are five big picture points you want nurses to take away from reading this?

  1. The climate crisis is real.
  2. It’s caused by humans.
  3. It’s a big problem.
  4. We (humans) can fix it.
  5. Nurses can (and will) play a significant role in leading the way!
If someone’s interested in taking a larger role in combating these issues, who should they reach out to? Locally, nationally, internationally?
I would say to start locally with advocacy organizations in your area. Most locations, even rural ones, will have some sort of local work going on around the environment and/or climate. Check your state’s nurses association, as many have committees or initiatives that focus on addressing climate change as a health issue. If not, advocate and start one! Find out what else is going on in your community around climate change. City/town governments, local health departments, school districts, and even local businesses are additional ideas for plugging into what’s happening in your community.

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