Nurses mobilize to lead the fight against climate change

by Yessenia Funes, Earther

Climate change and global health are inextricably woven together. And as climate change worsens health problems around the world, nurses are often left to pick up the pieces in hospitals and clinics.

And they are. But in addition to helping the victims of natural disasters today, nurses are thinking about how to protect the most vulnerable patients of the future. Part of that effort includes the November special issue of the Journal of Nursing Scholarship—the first nursing journal issue dedicated entirely to climate change and health.

Though its articles have been slowly released online since August, the issue came out in its entirety Wednesday—and its article list is bomb. The overarching theme is the health threat climate change poses to at-risk populations like farmers and the elderly. The publication of this issue signals a new urgency within the nursing profession that they must contribute to solving climate change, and that starts with exploring how.

Climate change is going to create major global health challenges. As the U.S. Global Research Program’s 2016 assessment noted, a warming climate could increase populations of disease spreaders like mosquitoes and ticks, worsen air pollution that leads to respiratory disease, and raise temperatures to dangerous highs that can incite heat stroke.

“Climate change is believed to be one of the largest threats to human health that the planet has ever experienced.”

These types of adverse health impacts are important to nurses, but so is their ability to respond. In addition to outlining the risks, the journal addresses hospital preparedness for the stormier future and the current reality, as seen with Hurricane Sandy in New York City. Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico offers another example of the serious challenges the nursing workforce experiences post-disasters. Surgeons are performing surgery over cellphone light and locals are having trouble accessing medical care.

New York University’s Rory Meyers College of Nursing Dean Eileen Sullivan-Marx guest edited the journal, alongside Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing Dean at Emory University Linda McCauley.

They were inspired to create the issue after the previous administration held a White House Summit on Climate Change and Health. When they suggested the idea to the journal’s international editorial board, the two were pleasantly surprised to see members were interested.

“We’re the largest and most-trusted health professional group,” Sullivan-Marx told Earther.

“As the most trusted, if we’re saying climate change is bad for your health, then pay attention.”

They write in their guest editorial:

Nursing has historically addressed the health needs and care of the nation’s most vulnerable individuals. Climate change will have the capacity to affect all of the earth’s inhabitants, but groups particularly vulnerable include those with low income, some communities of color, immigrant groups, indigenous peoples, children and pregnant women, older adults, vulnerable occupational groups, persons with disabilities, and persons with preexisting or chronic medical conditions.

Sullivan-Marx and McCauley call on nurses to rise above the political fray in the Washington that’s keeping the federal government from taking direct action against the global threat of climate change.

“Extreme weather events are going to occur, and care providers are going to have to take care of populations regardless of what the government does,” McCauley told Earther.

While nurses’ most intimate experiences with climate change are usually through emergency response to disasters, the guest editors ask their community to join fight to prevent further global warming entirely, by supporting policies that push sustainable energy sources and reduce greenhouse gases.

The nursing community’s concern over climate change isn’t new. Nurse unions came out in droves for the New York City People’s Climate March in 2014. They saw firsthand what disaster relief looks like after Hurricane Sandy, whose five-year anniversary is this weekend. And they recognized how badly survivors need—and will continue to need—them.
Now, the urgency is only increasing.

The journal’s guest editorial is frank: “Climate change is believed to be one of the largest threats to human health that the planet has ever experienced.”



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