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Environmental Health Division
Champion Stories: Patrick Stieg
Meet Patrick Stieg.
Patrick is a senior public health services professional specializing in chronic disease prevention at the Carver County Public Health Department. Patrick has spent the last five to ten years exploring the association between climate change and public health with the Society for Public Health Education and with Eco America, as a climate and health ambassador. With over 36 years of public health experience in government, nonprofit, and health plan settings, Patrick combines seasoned health expertise with climate action.
How does your work deal with climate and health?
Patrick: Although my role at the Carver County Public Health Department doesn’t currently specify a climate and health responsibility, climate and health are beginning to gain more attention through our broader Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP). One of CHIP’s goals is to make wellbeing a shared value by having conversations in our community about health. Health starts in our communities, including the air we breathe and the water we drink. Aside from CHIP, during the COVID-19 pandemic, our public health department developed a closer working relationship with other county departments such as Environmental Services and Emergency Management. These departments have been planning and preparing for climate related emergencies for a long time.
How do you promote environmental justice and health equity in your work?
Patrick: Health equity is a key focus of the work that we’re doing in our public health department. It underpins our CHIP, our COVID-19 response, and every other program and service we provide. We fully appreciate the impact of social determinants of health on the wellbeing of people, especially those who are currently or have historically experienced inequities. Addressing social determinants is key for us to eliminate health disparities. This includes addressing the populations most impacted by climate change and those experiencing environmental injustice. We definitely see a tie between health equity and environmental justice in the work that we do.
How has climate change impacted you personally?
Patrick: I’ve lived in the same community for over 30 years. While I know that climate change has been occurring for a long time, witnessing how the climate has altered your own locality can be eye opening. I’ve seen more extreme weather during all four seasons, particularly when it comes to temperature and precipitation. “Normal” weather is experienced less frequently, and abnormal weather is experienced more frequently. Part of this is due to climate change impacting other parts of the country. For instance, a lot of our weather here in Minnesota comes from the West. Wildfires in the West impact our air quality, thus impacting human health, particularly for vulnerable populations. We have also seen increases in heat and humidity that arrive from other regions of the country and impact our food systems, plant life, and water quality.
Why is it important that public health officials and those in government integrate climate change into their work?
Patrick: The acceleration of the rate of climate change should be of concern to all of us working in public health. We’ve seen and will continue to see that the population segments impacted first and worst are the same groups experiencing health inequities from other health conditions. Climate change will make the most vulnerable segments of our population even more vulnerable to adverse health conditions. For example, those who are already at risk for respiratory illness are going to be at an even greater risk as the climate continues to change.
What is something impactful that public health officials can do to protect people’s health in the face of climate change?
In the short term, it’s going to be incumbent upon us to help prepare people for the impacts of climate change, both upon themselves and their family members. We’ll all be impacted in some way by climate change. In the long term, we need to help people make individual and collective changes to protect their personal and community welfare. As climate change gets worse, we require more systemic changes in behalf of all of us.
How can someone without public health experience help highlight climate change as a public health issue?
Patrick: It’s important for people who work directly in the health field, whether that be medicine or public health, to raise the consciousness of the public around the health impacts of climate change. Climate impacts include more than the extinction of certain plant and animal species. We need to help people recognize that climate change is impacting people’s health, particularly those who are vulnerable to health issues (grandparents, children, those with chronic conditions) sooner than others. Your mother, your neighbors, or your friends (particularly those of lower income) may be in a situation where they don’t have the ability or resources to mitigate the impacts of climate change. They could be in situations where they don’t have access to a means to stay cool amidst increasing temperatures, whether that be air conditioning or something else. It’s incumbent upon us to engage people in conversations and make connections to organizations concerned about climate change and environmental justice. We must offer ways in which they can get involved and make a difference. I think a lot of people would like to help; they just need to know how.
What are some of the biggest climate and health challenges right now?
Patrick: One of the things that I think is going to be a challenge is furthering public acceptance of climate change. More specifically, I think it’s going to be challenging to get people to understand how the climate is changing right here in Minnesota, and how it will impact quality of life for all of us. Climate change will impact everyone, not only in terms of physical or mental health, but also in terms of the work we do or availability of recreational pursuits. However, I’m hopeful that we will all recognize the health benefits, social benefits, and economic benefits from taking action. It’s necessary for us to act, but I think it’s going to be challenging to create momentum among enough people who believe and realize we need to make changes together.
On the flip side, is there anything giving you hope for the future of climate and health?
Patrick: As I’ve been doing some work in this area, I’ve seen survey data that indicates that a larger percentage of people in our country are concerned about climate change. I’ve also seen data that shows that they aren’t sure that there are many people who share their concerns. Obviously, if a lot of people are concerned, then they need to know that they’re not alone. They can join together with others, and together we can figure out some solutions. I’ve already seen Minnesotans within various sectors and recreational pursuits begin to realize that the climate is changing, and that we need to make adaptations, or we will continue to suffer the economic, social, recreational, and health impacts.
The opinions expressed in these stories are the interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of MDH.