I have always advocated making time to attend a talk that’s outside of your area of focus when attending a big conference. It’s a powerful way to experience new perspectives. On Monday, the last day of Sessions, there was a panel held in Main Event I— the grand stage, where the presidential session and the big-news late breakers are held— about climate change. That definitely qualifies as outside of my area. Climate change, at a cardiovascular health conference? Yes, the panelists argued, climate change is a dire threat to cardiovascular health, and we need our scientists and clinicians to address it.
Dr. John Balbus suggested several avenues through which climate impacts health, including air pollution, thermal stress and migration and conflict. These problems create cumulative physiological stress, which is a major driver of cardiovascular disease. Direct evidence of health impact can be seen. For example, during severe wildfires in California, Dr. John Balmes noted, not only did lung-related illness increase, but so did myocardial infarction.
Photo: Marcus Kauffman via Unsplash
AHA took a great step towards raising the profile of the climate problem by hosting this panel, and by doing it as a Main Event. I was dismayed, though, to see the room mostly empty. Why does this issue not have traction? Is it “too big”— leaving folks feeling like they can’t make an impact, or any impact would be too distant to feel? Is it a question of importance vs. urgency— we see people dying vaping-related lung injuries right now, and we are facing the specter of climate-related illness less immediately? Is it that the clear lines of causation between human activity, climate change, and health problems aren’t yet clearly visible to all? I don’t know, but it is up to us as the next generation of health and science professionals to insist.
So here we are, as early career scientists and clinicians. We know there’s a problem, and we know it’s a big one. But what can we do, as busy, ambitious, career-focused young(ish) people, working in universities and healthcare organizations? Get ready to channel your inner Greta Thunberg and speak truth to power!
During the climate panel at sessions, Dr. Caren Solomon presented a framework for action with six ideas. Here’s how we can apply them to professional meetings and conferences, and maybe this will help you think about how to apply them at your home institution, as well.
- Personal Behaviors: Traveling to a meeting is resource-intensive. For the trip to Philly this year, I tried to mitigate my impact by using public transit instead of taxis or Lyft, bringing a reusable mug/water bottle, skipping daily linen changes and housekeeping at my hotel, turning down the lights and heat when I left the room, forgoing items like bags, straws, and lids that I didn’t need, and eating plant-based (that’s a topic for another post!). These changes aren’t hard, but they do require paying attention. What else could you change to reduce your impact?
- Institutional Decarbonization- Hosting organizations could focus on providing sustainable food and food packaging, reducing waste (think of all the printed papers and giveaways that wind up in the trash), or purchasing carbon offsets for meeting travel (organizations like Terrapass make this easy).
- Education: The public views physicians and nurses as trusted sources. When we are knowledgable, the potential impact is high. Professional organizations like AHA can therefore facilitate the flow of information. AHA is on the right track, including a climate panel at scientific sessions. Maybe next year, we can work to increase exposure around this issue and boost uptake: promote the issue in conference materials, schedule it at a high-visibility time, and minimize conflicting sessions.
- Advocacy: AHA recently joined a consortium of medical organizations focused on education and advocacy around climate issues https://medsocietiesforclimatehealth.org/ and @DocsForClimate). This is a great step! This group provides organization and resources to help health professionals educate local lawmakers, the press, and community groups. I’d like to see organizations do more to take up the link between climate and cardiovascular health directly, consistently, and visibly. That’s a great way to be a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives.
- Nonprofits and public institutions generally have their financial information available, including financial relationships with companies and other organizations. Advocating for divestment can make some waves in an organization because it’s so closely tied to the bottom line, and it often requires a very compelling case to make change. Financial relationships can conceal conflicts between an organization’s stated values and its actions effectively— and it often takes guts to challenge the apparatus. But you have guts, right?
- Protest & Non-violent direct action. We can be visible, as scientists, clinicians, and members of our professional organizations (including AHA). Speak out in public, wear your lab coat or your “Go Red” gear. Write letters to the editor. Attend a demonstration. We can leverage the respect our society affords us as health experts to encourage societal change.
The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.
Elizabeth Knight, PhD, DNP (she/her/hers) is a family nurse practitioner, scientist, and educator at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. She focuses on social justice in health care, including the role of gender in cardiovascular health. She tweets @TheKnightNurse.