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Environmental Health Division
Champion Stories: Teddie Potter
Meet Teddie Potter.
Teddie is a nurse and clinical professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Nursing. Teddie began her career heavily involved in community care, palliative care, and the development of home care programs before returning to school to get her master’s and PhD. At the University of Minnesota, Teddie serves as Director of Planetary Health and coordinates the Doctor of Nursing Practice in Health Innovation and Leadership. Aside from her clinical and academic work, Teddie has extensive experience in climate change and climate and health advocacy, including co-founding Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate and chairing the Planetary Health Alliance’s Clinicians for Planetary Health.
How does your work deal with climate and health, particularly as we see it in Minnesota?
I am somebody who sees trends very early. In the early 2000s, I began to see that we were already manifesting indications of climate change in Minnesota. I noticed enough pattern changes in bird migration, plant blooming, tree pollen, and disappearing ice to indicate something was happening. So, I sought knowledge and did individual work related to climate change. I worked on climate as a side gig until 2010 when I realized that climate care is health care. As the planet changes, there will be huge implications for human health, as well as the health of all species. I needed to get involved through my practice. One of the first things I did was meet with other health professionals, through which we started Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate—a Minnesota-based nonprofit devoted to climate action and policy work. I started teaching a course at the University of Minnesota called “The Global Climate Challenge: Creating an Empowered Movement for Change.” Then, I became really involved in planetary health. I began to realize, even if we solve climate change, we’re still going to experience biodiversity loss, issues relate to overconsumption of resources, collapse of our fisheries, and land, water, and air pollution.
How do you promote environmental justice and health equity in your work?
Environmental justice and health equity are threaded through everything I discuss. We will not solve climate change if we only solve it for some people or if we only utilize solutions that have been created by some groups. We must invite everybody to the table, and we must ensure that we are inclusive at the table. This means making sure people’s talents and abilities are fully celebrated, supported, and uplifted. We know that those who contribute least to the problem suffer first and worse, so we need to make sure that our efforts address that. Climate action is not just rescuing lake front owners, it’s looking at all groups of people across all socioeconomic levels, genders, races, and abilities. This is the only way we’re going to reach an effective solution.
How has climate change impacted you, or your community, personally?
I have a little bit of allergy-induced asthma. As such, I have breathing difficulties when trees are in bloom and when fall time comes around. In recent years, I could certainly feel that the pollen levels were different. Also, this summer, my grandson who is two years old and lives here in Minnesota, and my son, who lives out in New York, both developed the bulls-eye rash from tick bites carrying Lyme disease. Aside from the immediate impacts I’ve seen within my family, our patients experience all sorts of issues related to climate change in Minnesota. People that I know and people that our nurses have cared for are having difficulty with the high heat index in summer and the polar vortex in the winter. Freezing conditions place people who don’t have adequate housing and/or work outdoors at risk for frost bite. People fall and have close-head injuries due to changes in ice. Last summer, we had a terrible drought in Minnesota that impacted farmers and people that live off the land. We also had terrible air quality due to wildfires in Canada and the western United States. Climate change isn’t years and decades down the line, it’s impacting our health right now in our neighborhoods here in Minnesota.
Why is it important for nurses to integrate climate change into their work?
It’s not even important, we are ethically obliged to integrate climate change into our work. All health professions are dedicated to protecting and preserving life. The only way we are going to do that is to address climate change and prepare our patients for what’s coming, both with respect to disaster preparedness and their own personal health. It’s not optional anymore. It’s not true that only some specialties, like public health, need to get involved. Every part of health care is going to be dealing with climate impacts. From an economic standpoint, we cannot continue to have these high million and billion dollar climate-related events that are destroying homes, livelihoods, and neighborhoods. Climate change is the most urgent health care crisis we have ever faced, and we have to deal with it now. So, why is it important for nurses to get involved? It’s important because when nurses speak, people listen. For twenty years in a row, nurses have been voted the most trusted profession according to Gallup poll. We are the most trusted voices, not just in health care, but among all professions. Therefore, we have an obligation to protect and preserve people’s lives and livelihoods by helping them understand how to help mitigate climate change, adapt to changes that are happening, and be healthier and more resilient.
What is something impactful that nurses and professors can do to protect people’s health in the face of climate change?
Information is really important, particularly science-based reputable information. People need to be educated. They need to understand the issues. They need to understand what’s happening and how it’s happening. What should nurses do? We need to teach health literacy. For instance, how do you understand the difference between reputable sources and sources you shouldn’t be trusting? We also need to encourage people to vote. I’m not telling people how to vote, but I am encouraging people to vote for legislators that are running on a platform that includes protecting the planet. Addressing lifestyle choices is another measure we can adopt, such as plant-based diets, walkable and bikeable cities, using renewable energy (if they can afford to), protecting the land we have, purchasing pollinator-friendly plants, and thinking downstream. What are we putting into the Mississippi? What are we putting into our bodies? What are we doing that’s going to harm or hinder future generations?
How can people who don’t have experience in medicine, climate change, or public health help highlight climate change as a public health issue?
You don’t have to be a health professional to be involved in the movement. In fact, we need everyone. We need teachers, health professionals, business leaders, people in law, farmers, grandparents, parents, early childhood providers, and more. There is a role for everyone, and it’s going to take every single one of us working together to flip our system. People need to do whatever they’re doing in service to the future. Whatever you’re doing, you need to be asking: Is this promoting planetary health or is it contributing to the problem? I ask people to remember that climate change is real; it’s happening now; scientists agree that it’s caused by humans; and we can’t dilly-dally until 2100 before we get involved. We have about a decade to turn things around, but there’s hope. It’s not game over if we can get people to wake up and commit to doing their part to solve the planetary health crisis that threatens our future.
What is one of the biggest challenges for the climate and health space moving forward?
Detractors—industries that have something to lose if we decarbonize. Detractors continue to put out harmful messaging. Originally, the messaging was climate change isn’t real. Then they realized there’s enough evidence that it’s real. So, they started to say it’s real, but it’s a part of the natural cycle of earth’s history—the ebbs and flows of temperature. The newest and latest tactic is to say game over—climate change is terrible, so you might as well continue to make the same choices that you are making now because there’s nothing you can do. One person cannot create the changes that are necessary. We must combat this narrative very intentionally. There’s tremendous reason to hope. The earth is amazingly resilient when we stop harming it. We have brilliant scientists and lay leaders working on resolving climate change, and beautiful young people who are interested and eager to do something about this. We need to say to the detractors: “Sorry we don’t believe your story and we’re not going to let it shut us down.”
On the flip side, is anything giving you hope.
There are tons of organizations that give me hope. In the healthcare space, I would like to lift up Health Care Without Harm and Practice Green Health who are helping our healthcare organizations change their practices and lower their carbon footprints. The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health pulls together health organizations to work together on climate issues. The American Academy of Nursing is taking climate change very seriously, as is the American Nurses Association. Columbia’s Global Consortium on Climate and Health is doing great work on education. Planetary Health Alliance at Harvard is doing fantastic work globally to empower groups. At the University of Minnesota, we have researchers studying everything from greener grain kernels to restoring communities impacted by climate change. The School of Nursing has adopted planetary health as part of our core mission. Every faculty, administrator, staff, and student are learning about planetary health. It’s a scary time in that climate change is extremely serious, and we have to act fast and act together, but there are so many good people out there doing good things that I really am hopeful.
The opinions expressed in these stories are the interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of MDH.