The Vital Role of Nurses in Addressing Climate Change
Cara Cook, MS, RN, AHN-BC, is working to increase awareness and promote action that addresses climate change as a health imperative among the nursing community through her role as climate change program coordinator for the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (ANHE).
We spoke with Cara, who was recently chosen as a 2017 Johnson & Johnson Global Citizen Young Health Leader, about the connection between environmentalism and nursing, and how her background as a nurse has prepared her for advocacy work.
Nurses are at the forefront of change within practicing settings through advocating for use of safer chemicals in hospital cleaning supplies, by forming green teams or sustainability departments that focus on reducing an institution’s environmental impact, or from working in communities to ensure patients have access to healthy foods and safe areas to exercise.
As the most trusted profession and largest group of healthcare providers, nurses are urgently needed to lead the fight against climate change. Being aware of and advocating for solutions to limit and respond to climate change is within our scope of nursing practice, with our own practice standards stating the “registered nurse practices in an environmentally safe and healthy manner.”
As part of my master’s program, I was required to complete a certain number of hours for two semesters with a public health organization. Since my area of interest is in environmental health, I was paired to work with Katie Huffling, the executive director at ANHE. At that time, my work with ANHE involved federal reform of toxic chemical policy and participation in campaigns at the state level focused on advancing health-protective regulations for hydraulic fracturing and antibiotic use in animal agriculture. About a year after I graduated, ANHE received funding to expand their climate change and health program, and I came on board as a full-time employee.
Also, I think being able to work through the unanticipated and creatively solve problems when everything seems to be going wrong, as so often is needed in bedside nursing, has helped with working through some of the challenges in environmental health work.
One of our current initiatives is working to form a Nursing Collaborative on Climate Change and Health, which is an effort to unite national nursing organizations around climate change, with the goals of bringing health to the forefront of discussion and policy-making and ensuring a coordinated nursing response across specialties.
Since our organization has a small staff, I also help with our other environmental health initiatives, currently focused on water and health, air pollution, energy and health, safer chemicals, and food sustainability. ANHE also provides advocacy trainings, which I help organize and run, for nurses to learn how to be successful advocates on environmental health issues.
Another perk of my job is being able to talk with nurses about climate and health, and help them learn how they can move action forward in their own practice. It’s rewarding to inspire nurses to take action and to see how passionate they become when they learn about how climate change is creating significant challenges for health.
With environmental health work, and even policy work in general, it can be challenging not to get discouraged. Working with such a strong group of nurses helps to keep the momentum going when efforts can be disheartening.
Our healthcare system is in a fragile state, and there must be some dramatic changes for the system to be sustainable. We are already seeing a shift to prevention and building up the primary care system, with increasing attention to how environmental factors can affect health, and I think nurses and nurse practitioners will have a major role in this shift as our profession branches off into different avenues of care outside of traditional settings.
Many of these environmental health issues, including climate change, can seem so daunting, almost as if there is nothing that can be done to reverse the course of action. However, there are solutions to address these complex issues and we are at a critical point where, as nurses we can make a big impact on the health of our patients and communities. Nurses are so important to moving the health message forward on climate change and, collectively, we have incredible power to drive change.