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Environmental Health Division
Champion Stories: Kathleen Schuler
Meet Kathleen Schuler.
Kathleen is the volunteer Policy Director for Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate (HPHC) - a Minnesota nonprofit organization focused on activating the voices of health professionals to educate and advocate in the clinical and policy settings. Prior to this position, Kathleen was Co-Director of Healthy Legacy, a Minnesota coalition working to remove toxic chemicals from consumer products to protect public health. With four decades of public health experience, Kathleen now applies her knowledge and skills to the continuous championing of climate and health.
How does your work deal with climate change and health, specifically as we see it in Minnesota?
Kathleen: In Minnesota, we don’t experience hurricanes and our wildfires are less frequent compared with other parts of the country, but nonetheless the effects of climate change are affecting us, even if some effects are more subtle. Sometimes it can be hard for people to recognize that climate change is affecting us. Certainly, farmers feel the impacts of climate change because we have intermittent drought and flooding, which affects their livelihood, their crops, and their mental health. We have extreme heat events that are health risks for pregnant women, people that don’t have air conditioning, and people with chronic illnesses. Aside from extreme heat, our climate is changing and the habitat for disease-carrying mosquitoes is spreading northward leading to a greater prevalence of infectious diseases. In addition, the mental health effects of climate change are extreme, especially for young people and people who are dealing with everyday disruptions from climate events, particularly communities of color and low-income communities that already have a lot of stressors.
How do you promote environmental justice and health equity in your work?
Kathleen: I’ve always prioritized environmental justice in a volunteer capacity. I think the climate crisis, like other crises, has unearthed systemic inequities in our society and problems that we’ve turned away from. We haven’t really dealt with the disparities in housing, health, education, and policing, so these stressors mount. Then we have the stress of climate change that’s affecting communities and unearthing these systemic disparities. So, to tackle the climate crisis we really need to protect the people who are most vulnerable by creating adaptability, healthier environments, and tree cover, and by the weatherization of houses. All of these policies help the most vulnerable people who often lack resources.
How has climate change impacted you personally?
Kathleen: I personally don’t have air conditioning, so I just adjust my windows according to the weather. However, I’m relatively privileged. I don’t have small children, and I don’t have chronic health conditions. For me, the greatest impact of climate change is a form of grief, seeing what’s happening to the environment. I realize that I have some power, and by working on it, I feel like I am contributing. But also, when we have legislative sessions that fail to pass policies, even though one body of our legislature passes them, I feel as though people are ignoring the coming crisis. We’re not dealing with this problem. The privileged people, those that can move someplace safer, are not going to be as affected. Internationally, developing countries don’t have the resources that affluent countries like the U.S. have. We’re leaving people behind—we have climate refugees, we have people experiencing starvation, and we’re looking at solutions like growing biofuels when we should be feeding people. We’re making decisions that are not in the best interest of the most vulnerable in our global environment and local communities.
Why do you think it’s important that those with nonprofit experience or public health experience incorporate climate change into their work?
Kathleen: It’s important because all the decisions that we’re making economically and socially are impacted by our climate and are impacting our climate. Therefore, climate change needs to be a lens that we apply to all our policy decisions. I see businesses doing this, but businesses tend to define it based on what they can do and still make a profit. Sometimes, with public policies, we need to enact policies where we might have to make some sacrifices for the greater good. That’s why I think public policy plays a critical role in mitigating, adapting, and addressing the climate crisis.
What is something impactful that people within nonprofit organizations can do to protect people’s health in the face of climate change?
Kathleen: For us, we try to partner with grassroots environmental justice groups and listen to what they have to say and what their needs are. Our climate solutions, in some ways, need to be led by local communities and the communities most impacted by climate change. Resources need to be allocated to groups to make their own solutions instead of following a top-down approach. I think that nonprofits can play a role in partnering with grassroots groups, and not taking over their work, but lending expertise. For example, we can partner with groups and use our health and science expertise to help them reach their goals and create healthy communities.
What is something that someone without experience in public health or climate change can do to help highlight climate change as a public health issue?
Kathleen: For health professionals who don’t feel they have expertise in climate change, HPHC provides educational resources and tools. Often, people feel they don’t know enough, but if we can provide resources on communication and the health effects of climate change so that people feel comfortable with the information, then they can talk about it. For people who work for health systems, they can work within their structure to get leadership to address their carbon footprint and advocate for a carbon free economy. In the healthcare sector, health organizations are reluctant to enter the policy realm, but they can at least focus on their own carbon footprint and how the decisions they make affect their patients, the broader community, and the climate. For the average person who is not a health professional, the first step is to educate yourself on the effects of climate change and talk about it within your networks of family and friends. Also, try to be a “climate voter” and support candidates who endorse climate action.
What are some of the biggest or most pressing challenges in the climate and health space right now?
Kathleen: The biggest challenges are the political divisions that sometimes translate into a rural-urban divide. People up north want to have mining jobs, even though mining jobs are temporary, not the healthiest, and jobs can be found in a greener economy. There needs to be a way for us to talk to people who don’t believe in climate change and/or believe fossil fuel jobs are economically necessary. We need to have these discussions. However, we must use the right messaging. Sometimes we can’t say climate change. To avoid alienating people, we have to talk about things that are happening without labeling them. The biggest challenge is bridging the two different viewpoints on the climate crisis. We need to listen to each other. In non-metro communities, we need to lead conversations with health professionals. As credible spokespeople, they can reach people from a health perspective where others cannot.
Conversely, is anything giving you hope?
Kathleen: I think a lot of faith-based groups like MNIPL (Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light) and Isaiah are having conversations that bridge political divides. If you’re speaking from your faith perspective, it might be a little easier to communicate to rural communities where some elected officials don’t believe in climate change, or support climate change solutions. I’m really impressed with MNIPL because they are having these necessary conversations. I’m also impressed by groups like Climate Generation that are comprised of young people talking and working with each other to act against climate change. The younger generation is less likely to be climate deniers, so that gives me hope.
The opinions expressed in these stories are the interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of MDH.