Talking with U of M

Talking community-led climate justice with the U of M

Laalitha Surapaneni
Laalitha Surapaneni. Photo by University of Minnesota

This week, President Joe Biden will host the Leaders Summit on Climate to highlight the economic benefits of stronger climate action. But, those benefits extend to human health, too, says Laalitha Surapaneni, MD, MPH, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School and a hospitalist with M Health Fairview. 

Research shows that a healthy climate ensures access to clean air and drinking water, shelter and nutritious food — even mental health improves. Dr. Surapaneni shares how people can get involved in community-led climate justice today to reduce the impact of climate change on human health.

Q: What are some examples of how climate change impacts human health?
Dr. Surapaneni
: The damage we are doing to our climate has geographically-specific impacts on our health. For example, we see the health impacts of wildfires in the Northwest and hurricanes displacing communities and a rise in water-borne diseases due to warmer ocean waters in the Southeast. In the Midwest, warmer winters create comfortable breeding grounds for ticks and mosquitoes leading to a rise in diseases like Lyme and West Nile Meningoencephalitis. We are also seeing a rise in extreme heat that causes heat-related illnesses and diseases from poor air quality, like asthma and heart attacks, which impact communities all across the country. 

A lesser known impact is on our mental health. Solastalgia is a distress that results from a sense of loss of place from environmental damage. Some researchers have described it as “homesickness while you are home.” Think of the loss of winter traditions in Minnesota because the lakes don’t freeze over or maybe you can no longer go fishing or enjoy your favorite lake because of toxic algal blooms. Simply put, climate change is a public health issue. 

Q: What is “community-led climate justice” and how does it work?
Dr. Surapaneni
: Climate Justice acknowledges that the impacts of climate change, including the health impacts we just discussed, are distributed inequitably across communities. It also demands that we address these inequities through reducing our carbon footprint (mitigation) and through actions that help communities brace for these impacts (adaptation).

Why community-led climate justice? Traditionally, we have had a top-down approach to climate justice. We often hear statements about how vulnerable communities, such as low-income communities and communities of color, often bear the brunt of climate impacts.

While factually accurate, community-led climate justice requires us to reframe this approach to address two major issues — appropriately assign responsibility to structural and policy decisions that often result in these disproportionate impacts and restore agency to impacted communities to design grassroots climate solutions.

In essence, a paternalistic approach to climate justice that focuses on “vulnerable communities” leads to insufficient and inequitable solutions. In reality, communities closest to the problem are resilient, often the ones who are problem-solving and are already leading with action. As a scientific community, we can support their efforts by providing our expertise when called upon.

Q: One way to take action is to talk about it. But, how can someone initiate a conversation with a family member or friend about climate change in an approachable manner? 
Dr. Surapaneni
: First of all, it is important to identify where on the climate spectrum your friend or family member is. For example, if I want to help my patient quit smoking, the first question I ask is, “Are you ready to quit smoking?” and if they say, “No,” we move on. Similarly with climate, it is of minimal benefit to engage with those who deny the reality of climate change.

If your friend is concerned about climate change, but not yet taking action, motivational interviewing (MI) is a great way to engage in conversation. Often, we are too eager to give our viewpoint on issues and don’t spend enough time listening. In MI, you accept your conversation partner where they are in their change process and engage with them in a helper role. There are various strategies in MI, like non-judgemental empathetic listening, finding common ground in statements made by your friend, asking open-ended questions, pointing out their strengths and boosting their self-efficacy by asking them to propose solutions to the obstacles they perceive.

Q: What are some concrete ways that someone can take action today in their local community?
Dr. Surapaneni
: According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we need to cut our emissions by 45% by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050. This will need systemic change and cannot be accomplished by individual actions alone. So, one great way to take action is to volunteer with environmental non-profits that seek such systemic solutions.
For example, in Minnesota, the 100% campaign is working towards legislation for 100% clean energy, MN350 is working to advance climate justice on many fronts, including clean transportation, and Indigenous organizations like Indigenous Environmental Network are working to stop fossil fuel infrastructure that causes disproportionate harm.

We can also create systemic change by taking action in places where we live, work, and play. For example, you can advocate that your neighborhood association implement climate adaptation programs, like checking on elderly during a heatwave or that your church divest from fossil fuels or that your workplace or business institute a zero-carbon plan. 

There is no one-size fits all approach when it comes to climate action. We need diverse areas of expertise and lived experiences to shape pathways to a sustainable future. Collective action centered in our values can help us tackle climate goals that otherwise seem insurmountable.

Q: Where can someone learn more about ways to take action for climate justice? 
Dr. Surapaneni
: At the U of M, we are starting a monthly lecture series called the “Health & Climate Justice Lecture Series” on behalf of the Climate Health Action Program (CHAP). In order to raise awareness about the intersection between climate change and social determinants of health, community leaders and U of M partners who work on climate justice issues will host a panel to bridge the gap between education and practice. This series will be targeted to students studying and training in health sciences, health care providers and the general public. The first panel is from noon to 1:15 p.m., April 28, and you can register online.

Laalitha Surapaneni, MD, MPH, is an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School and a hospitalist with M Health Fairview. Her areas of interest include the impacts of climate change on health equity, sustainable healthcare delivery and the role of physician advocacy in developing science-based policy. She co-chairs the Climate Health Action Program, a sustainability initiative within the U of M Medical School’s Department of Medicine and is an associate at the Institute on the Environment. She is a member of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change United States Brief workgroup through the University’s Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility. She is also the faculty advisor for Health Students for a Healthy Climate, an inter-professional health student group focused on climate action. 


*Conflict of Interest declaration: Dr. Surapaneni is a national board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility. 

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